A Lake Forest institution, The Lantern teeters on the precipice amid pandemic
By David A. F. Sweet
That night when college and prep-school students arrive home and reunite at their favorite bar on the evening before Thanksgiving had arrived. Problem was, few appeared at The Lantern in Lake Forest for the gathering nationally known as Blackout Wednesday.
“It was terrible,” said owner Beth Tiffany, whose father Don bought the landmark spot in 1975. “That’s always been the one night a year we’d have three bartenders. Not this year.”
The day after Thanksgiving, the City of Lake Forest hosts a tree-lighting ceremony a few yards south of The Lantern, bringing hundreds into Market Square. Traditionally, it’s been one of the biggest nights of the year for the bar. In 2020? It was a bust.
Overall, business at The Lantern is about 20 percent of what it brought in before the pandemic hit. The businesspeople who’d jump off the evening train across the street to come in for a drink are now working from home and have little interest in grabbing a beer while shivering outside in 40-degree weather.
Outside it must be, because the most recent coronavirus restrictions in Illinois require that bars and restaurants provide no indoor service. The Lantern has outdoor space in the back that it opened for the first time this year with tables, chairs and heaters (the establishment has spent about $15,000 on pandemic expenses, including masks and gloves). Unfortunately, the crowd can’t come close to matching three packed rooms indoors.
Whatever you think of the restrictions placed on restaurants and bars in Illinois, the evidence is clear that many long-time establishments (The Lantern opened during The Great Depression, a year after Prohibition ended) can’t make it. Plenty have closed permanently in Chicago and on the North Shore: Guthrie’s Tavern steps away from Wrigley Field, Nick’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill in Wilmette and dozens of others. Even though there has not been even one “super-spreader” event from an Illinois restaurant or bar, and even though these establishments’ employees wear masks, clean frequently and ask customers to social distance, these small businesses have been demolished by the state and city restrictions. And there’s a domino effect, as those who supply restaurants with food, napkins, straws and more struggle to survive.
Some restaurants are fighting back, refusing to follow the state mandate. Mike Coughlin of the Village Tavern and Grill in Carol Stream, Ill. kept his dining room open after Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s recent orders.
“You pay my bills, you pay my taxes, you pay my employees, and I’ll close,” he told The Wall Street Journal.
At The Lantern, Beth and her husband Ed Neville let a number of people inside on Blackout Wednesday. But someone called the cops to complain. Beth said the officers who arrived were somewhat embarrassed to be there, saying they didn’t want to intrude.
The numerous photos adorning the walls now hang over empty tables. Pictures of celebrity visitors, such as Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland when they made the movie Ordinary People in town, can be found, and it’s hard to miss dozens of framed shots of Bears’ players are inscribed with their autographs.
In fact, when the Bears trained at Lake Forest College for two decades until 1997, The Lantern was the place for the players and staff to hang out. Former Bear stalwart defensive end Mike Hartenstine even tended bar there for many years, once jumping over the counter to break up a fight. The McCaskeys often visited – one sat in the same seat each time and ordered a hamburger and a glass of milk.
Longtime customer Matt Alghini remembers those days.
“As kids we were always hopeful to see a Bears’ player,” he said. “Then later in life bringing my kids, Nicholas, Christina and Ashley, for lunch or dinner at The Lantern, they loved the balloon lady on Sundays, the trains and all the pictures on the walls.”
The balloon lady and other perks happened when The Lantern expanded, buying a barbershop next door when proprietor Stan Bonk died in a plane crash along with part of a paint shop next to the barbershop. Today, Beth yearns for the one-room days when lines formed outside, as she pays a sizable rent with almost zero return.
Beth and Ed are expecting a $12,500 grant from the City of Lake Forest earmarked for small businesses, but the reality is that may not be enough help. Any day they’re open, they lose money.
“But I don’t want to close until March,” Beth said. “How will the staff get paid?”
Whether The Lantern will survive is unclear. What is clear is that the supposed medicine to fight the coronavirus has been devastating to small businesses — and a restaurant’s illustrious history is no match when a state refuses to let businesses operate the way they know best.
Unsung Gems columnist David A. F. Sweet can be followed on Twitter @davidafsweet. E-mail him at email@example.com.