CHICAGO (CBS) -- We have a regular series on the CBS 2 News called "Hidden Gems" – highlighting the often-unseen Chicago stars.
But CBS 2 Streaming Anchor Brad Edwards took that model a step further – as it involves something that was actually hidden. It's not a person, but rather a space in a building that was unseen and sitting in disrepair – neglected by the City of Chicago – until a couple went for a walk one day a couple of years back.
The space in question is located on the lowest level of the Astor Tower at Astor and Goethe streets – amid the hush of the well-heeled in the Gold Coast.
"And we would walk our dogs by the entrance here a couple of times a day, and we were just always curious," said Adam Bilter, "and it really just piqued our interest - and we started the process to find out what exactly it was."
It was Chicago's Maxim's de Paris – once known as Chicago's finest restaurant. It was a replica, and a franchise, of the iconic art nouveau institution that has operated since 1893 in Paris – located on Rue Royale between the Place de la Concorde and the Place de la Madeleine, and known as the most popular restaurant in the world.
Chicago's Maxim's de Paris may not have been bookended by elegant Parisian plazas – but it was most assuredly an elegant place. Its entrance was around the corner from the main entrance to the Astor Tower – carrying an address of 24 E. Goethe St.
The Astor Tower where it is located was completed in 1963, and Maxim's de Paris Chicago opened in December of that year. The tower was designed by Bertrand Goldberg – the same audacious celebrity architect behind Marina City – and started out as a hotel before being converted into condos in 1979. Bertrand Goldberg's wife, Nancy Florsheim Goldberg, was the proprietor of Maxim's de Paris Chicago.
Maxim's de Paris closed in 1982. Nearly four decades later, Bilter discovered that the space – sitting shuttered – was owned by the City of Chicago.
After going through red tape and putting down a couple million bucks, the space now belongs to the Bilters. It is much like it was half a century ago – the same old ambience and the same dramatic grand staircase, but now operating as new private supper club called the Astor Club.
"We had managed to attract a membership base that's almost 70 percent of the members live within four blocks of right here," said Bilter. "They wanted a walkable, dress code, private place to call their second home."
It costs nearly $5,000 to join the Astor Club, and $300 a month in dues – not including anything members consume. Adam Bilter and his wife, Victoria, have spent zero on advertising – and yet, they are near capacity with members.
To save us coin, CBS 2's Edwards took us there with Bilter – while learning that to call the people who visited back in the Maxim's de Paris days a "who's who" would be an understatement.
In 1979 while filming "The Blues Brothers," John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd stayed at the Astor Tower. Meanwhile, the list of celebrities who visited Maxim's de Paris included Audrey Hepburn, Truman Capote, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Andy Warhol, Dizzy Gillespie, The Rolling Stones, and The Beatles.
The 27th floor of the Astor Tower once held a press conference room. In that room in August 1966,in which John Lennon was pressed to apologize for the statement that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus – a comment that the band said had been taken out of context in America, but nonetheless incited radio bans and bonfires. The Beatles also stayed at the hotel during their stop in Chicago on their tour that year, and came down the grand staircase to Maxim's de Paris too.
In the dining area at the Astor Club, it's not like stepping back in time – it actually is stepping back in time. The Bilters did not gut the space and start over.
"When we first walked down here three years ago, you could just feel the energy and how special of a place it was - and it was important for us to try to bring that back, rather than do what a lot of restaurateurs do, which is start with a white box and try to make it feel old and cool," said Adam Bilter. "This actually is old and cool and has the history here."
The only things that are truly fresh are the bread, the burrata, the beef tartare, the forest chicken, and the other fare on the menu - French, as it was intended.
The space where members enjoy that fare is a deliciously gilded nugget. It may technically carry an address on a street named for the German playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – but it is now the Astor Club, in the Astor Tower, on Astor Street, in the Astor Street District.
Those are all named for John Jacob Astor – the first multimillionaire in the U.S. He was German-born like his cross-street namesake Goethe, and he was an East Coaster – founding a fur trade dynasty and investigating in real estate in New York City. Astor was not a Chicagoan – but his name is on all those landmarks and districts because it was gold, in a neighborhood we call the Gold Coast.
But the gold was faded at the former Maxim's de Paris when the Bilters began working on it.
When they first came in, Adam Bilter said: "It was pretty eerie. The lights didn't work."
The once-elegant space had been reduced to a dust-covered city-owned basement.
The backstory there is that when Bertrand and Nancy Goldberg passed away, they left their son and two daughters their beloved Maxim's de Paris – which by then had not operated under that name for several years.
The Goldbergs' son, Geoffrey, and daughters, Nan and the late Lisa, in turn gifted the space to the City of Chicago in the year 2000 for $1. The City of Chicago named it the Nancy Goldberg International Cultural Center.
President Bill Clinton and Mayor Richard M. Daley each celebrated their birthdays in the space under city ownership.
But under city ownership, the space was eventually shuttered – until the Bilters went on walks during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. They first walked by the entrance to the old Maxim's de Paris in January 2021.
"And the more that we not only found out online when we were doing the research, but talked to people that had actually spent time here, the more we knew this is a really, really special place," Adam Bilter said.
They saw the state it was in, and bought it to turn it into the exclusive club it is today.
"There was a niche that needed to be filled for not only a beautiful space, but the fact that it's private, it's a dress code, it's fine dining," Bilter said. "We have live music."
The member list for the Astor Club is secret. But there are pictures on the wall, of people like Billy Zane, and Jim Belushi.
"Incredibly honored by the member list we have thus far," said Adam Bitler.
The grand piano at the Astor Club is the original from Maxim's de Paris. On it is sheet music for, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," signed by the late Tony Bennett himself.
Also decorating the deep burgundy walls are old editorial and political cartoons.
"A lot of these are very recognizable images, and they're because Jeff MacNelly was a political cartoonist for the Tribune for a few decades," said Bitler.
MacNelly, who died in 2000, won three Pulitzer Prizes for his cartoons. On the wall at the Astor Club his drafts of his cartoons from before you ever saw them in the Chicago Tribune.
One MacNelly cartoon shows Mayor Jane Byrne as "Little Orphan Janie," taking aim at her efforts to rescue the Chicago Housing Authority. Others depict Mayor Harold Washington in the times of Council Wars, and one is a reverent sendoff to Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray – who died in 1998.
You can even see edits like blue lines for where a character's leg was to go - MacNelly's brain at work, before it went to the pages of the Tribune and made Chicago surely think.
There is also a cover on the wall from Chicago Omnibus Magazine from January 1967 reading "Discotheque: Why? Why? Why?" But a disco ball more evocative of 1977 can still be found at the Astor Club, and the Bitlers will even hold onto the occasional disco night.
Again, Bitler emphasized that he and his wife wanted to maintain the character of the old Maxim's de Paris, not start over.
"Honestly, most of it was restoration - not renovation - because the place was so beautifully built out when they originally did it in 1963," he said. "It was important for us to hold on to that original design and structure."
for more features.