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Ceres Cafe, Destroyer of Careers

Of all the Chicagoans who’ve suffered the Board of Trade bar’s hangovers, Eddie Johnson’s may be the most permanent.

Photo: Zbigniew Bzdak

Ceres Cafe is not a place you drink when you have subsequent commitments. The cocktails are not merely strong, but something approaching navy strength. The bar’s sparsely windowed space inside the Chicago Board of Trade Building has a casino-like effect, its constant chatter and TVs dialed to forgettable channels creating a warped, stupefying sense of time’s passage. Chicken pot pie, turkey meatloaf, and patty melts sit heavy in the gut. All in all, Ceres is a gin-soaked lullaby.

And so it was on October 16 when she sang her boozy berceuse into the ear of police superintendent Eddie Johnson. According to the Chicago Tribune, video obtained by the city’s inspector general’s office shows Johnson drinking at Ceres for a few hours that evening with a woman who is not his wife. Later that night, Johnson was found asleep at the wheel of his SUV in Bridgeport.

Johnson’s account of the evening’s events — that he’d “had a couple of drinks” at dinner and forgotten to take his blood pressure medication — held up for weeks. In an amicable press conference with Mayor Lori Lightfoot, he announced he’d retire at the end of the year. Then, yesterday, she abruptly fired him, calling Johnson’s actions “intolerable for any leader in a position of trust.”

When the news broke, anyone who’d ever drank at Ceres — or even heard of it — laughed hard enough to choke on a martini olive. “A few hours” of drinking at Ceres is, conservatively, the equivalent of three Bears-tailgate keg stands, half a TBOX bar crawl, or 30 seconds chugging from a fire hose spewing hard liquor. As my former colleague Megan Crepeau, a Tribune reporter and no enemy of a stiff drink, put it: “I got tipsy just reading that sentence.” Ceres famously serves four-finger pours of your preferred poison, topped with a cursory splash of mixer. Lest you think this irresponsible, Ceres’s long-serving bartenders will supply you with the near-full can of soda so you can top off your drink. Or not.

Since it opened in 1989, the greatest trick Ceres ever pulled was to make the whole affair feel not so debaucherous. A renovation a few years back did away with some of the restaurant’s more dated trappings, and the clientele is now equal parts traders and downtown office workers. How sinful could Ceres be when half the room is wearing suit jackets and the place is open for breakfast? It’s quintessentially Chicago, a repository of necktie-loosened, wheeling and dealing, greasy-fingered hand shakes over mounds of French fries.

It feels almost fated that Ceres would set the stage for Johnson’s downfall, a mise en scene so perfectly cued that the night could end no other way. An already storied space on the first floor of the Board of Trade now adds another chapter to its long history, this event just more public than others. Lots of Chicagoans have suffered a hangover after a night at Ceres. Johnson’s will likely last the longest.

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