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Magic, à la Carte: An Appreciation of the City’s Only Steakhouse Magician

John Railing’s 20-minute routine has brought some customers to tears, he says.

Photo: Ramzi Dreessen

The second I saw it on the menu at Swift & Sons, I knew I had to order it. For a mere $75—which, after a $59 strip steak and an $81 bottle of Cabernet, didn’t seem like all that much—a real live magician would come to our table. So as my companion and I were digging into our panna cotta, a smartly dressed man in wire-rimmed glasses named John Railing strode up to our booth and said, “I heard you guys wanted some magic.”

The tricks came fast and fabulous. He asked us to pick a card, and it found its way into the inner pocket of his suit! He turned a deck of cards invisible! He transformed a normal 50-cent piece into an oversize one inside my clasped hands! Each trick elicited from me a squeal of glee. Diners at neighboring tables stared, but I couldn’t help it. This guy was good.

He later told me that restaurant magic—much like flambéing, cocktail shaking, and other back-in-vogue tableside theatrics—was once a big thing in Chicago. In fact, the city is considered the birthplace of the art.

When Railing’s 20-minute routine was over, he said that it’s not uncommon for customers to burst into tears when he performs, a circumstance that made my squealing seem understated. Splurging on a little magic is like springing for a nice bottle of wine, he added, “except you’ll forget the wine, but you won’t forget me.”

I haven’t.

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