Beadle, the wife of former University of Chicago president George Beadle, was taking part in the Faculty Wives’ Dinner, an annual tradition that included a show written, produced, and starring the faculty members’ better halves.
The choice to title the production Madness at the Medici was “not because [the play] has anything to do with Italy, but because the setting is the Medici coffee shop on East 57th Street,” wrote Patricia Moore in a newspaper column titled, “Society in Chicago.” In covering the event, the Chicago Sun-Times described the Medici as “a favorite campus hangout which serves croissants on Sunday.”
Fifty-three years, seven University presidents, and hundreds of thousands of croissants later, the Sun-Times’ description has remained fairly accurate. The Medici has now moved a few blocks west from its original space at the back of Green Door Bookshop (now B’Gab’s Goodies). But it has remained a campus staple, almost certainly unavoidable to anyone who spends time on campus or in Hyde Park. The graffiti scratched onto every surface of the wooden furniture—a popular tradition that owner Hans Morsbach eventually embraced—still harkens to the “Bohemian coffee house” that the faculty wives perceived the Medici to be in 1962.
Coincidentally, the year that the Faculty Wives put on Madness at the Medici was also a pivotal year for the Medici itself. Enter Morsbach, freshly graduated from the University’s Booth School of Business. On a morning walk in Hyde Park, he spotted a sign advertising that the Medici was for sale. Morsbach, who was working for a plastics company at the time, bought the coffee shop for just $1,750 (though Morsbach rounded to “like a thousand dollars,” in an interview with the Maroon in 2007). He couldn’t change the name because he couldn’t afford to.
In the decades after he purchased the coffee house, Morsbach grew the business into the neighborhood joint that the Hyde Park community knows today. At first, Morsbach stayed with his job at the plastics company, but eventually he left to run the restaurant full-time. When the Green Door Bookshop closed, Morsbach took over the whole space and expanded the coffee house into a restaurant—adding a deep-dish pizza to the menu. Some of the books left over from the Green Door’s glory days remain in the Morsbach house to this day.
Hans Morsbach, the longtime owner of Medici on 57th, in the 1990s. ADAM LISBERG | THE CHICAGO MAROON
Morsbach tried his hand at expansion. In the history of his ownership, he opened six Medici locations in the Chicagoland area, with restaurants as far north as Evanston and as far south as Normal, IL, as well as one just a few blocks north at Harper Court. Currently, two locations of the Medici remain: the ones on 57th Street and in Normal.
In 1998, Morsbach moved the original restaurant westward on East 57th Street to its current location. When modeling the current location, Morsbach intentionally replicated the design of its predecessor. The Morsbachs even kept the wooden booths in their backyard in between the moves. “We didn’t want to get rid of the furniture because we wanted [the new location] to have the same feeling with the table carving and all of that,” Kathy Morsbach recalled.
Because the old look was so well-preserved, Esterly, the general manager of the Medici on 57th, noted that some older customers will still ask her if she is sure they moved locations at all.
The Medici, which Hyde Parkers and UChicago students shorten to “the Med,” has served everyone from Barack Obama to Tanya Sullivan, a beloved crossing guard who has watched over the children in Hyde Park for the past 17 years, ]the last three of which she has spent stationed at Ray Elementary School—right across from the Med.
Sullivan said that she likes to reunite with former students at the Med. She recently caught up with one student whom she first met fourteen years ago, when the student was just four years old.
“We came [to the Med] and had pizza, and we talked about the prom, and she showed me all her pictures,” Sullivan recalled. “[She’s] growing up—the time went so quick.”
Sullivan said she usually enjoys a hot chocolate and muffin in the morning. “But now I’m on a diet,” she chuckled.
The relationship that many Hyde Parkers have with the establishment is not just one-way: In addition to working in the neighborhood, many of the Med’s staff and management live and raise children in Hyde Park.
Esterly, the manager of the Medici, is one example. Her husband went to the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools; her two kids went to Ray Elementary and now to The Ancona School on 47th Street and Dorchester Avenue.
Her history with Hyde Park spans two decades: After graduating from college with a chemistry degree, Esterly moved to Chicago and was hired to work as the general manager of the Medici at Harper Court, which is how she met Morsbach. The two eventually became business partners for another business venture, University Market, which is now Z&H Market Cafe. When the general manager at the Medici on 57th left, Esterly took over as general manager of the Med as well.
Esterly is part of a cast that has worked at the Med for decades, many of whom have observed the neighborhood as it has changed. Gracie Gamero, the Med’s head baker, noted how Hyde Park has recently become fancier and more similar to many other neighborhoods in Chicago, likely the result of University-backed development. Even the building complex where the Medici currently resides has seen the rise and fall of establishment after establishment, ranging from a clothing store to an experimental hang-out space run by a UChicago alumnus.
The changes in Hyde Park have also affected the Medici community: When the University raised rent on the building that housed University Market in 2009, Esterly and Morsbach decided to close the shop.
“The neighborhood has really grown,” Esterly noted. “[But] my goal for the restaurant is to stay true to what the Medici has always been.”
Esterly’s goal seems to reflect the community it serves: “Hyde Parkers are resistant to change,” waiter Michael Kennedy said with a chuckle. In his 13 years working at the Med, he has collected his fair share of stories.
He once served Obama, when he was still running for office. He recalled the senator ordering a bacon cheeseburger and green tea with honey and lemon—“because his throat was hurting.” He noted that Representative Bobby Rush and State Representative Barbara Flynn Currie were also frequenters of the Med.
“Sadly, I missed the day [ER actor] Anthony Edwards was in the bakery,” Kennedy quipped.
These days, the Medici thrives on the traditions it has collected. Croissants, for one, have gone from being a Sunday specialty to the bakery’s daily bread. Each morning, Gamero sits in her usual corner of the Med kitchen cutting out triangles of croissant dough. Her chair might as well be her throne: Having worked at the Med for 30 years, she currently is the head baker and oversees five bakers every morning. Her eponymous apple pie has won the stomachs and hearts of regulars and visitors alike.
When she first started working at the Med in 1986, the restaurant was still at its previous location, the backdrop for the Faculty Wives show 24 years before. She started off making pies and cakes for the restaurant, though they were only available on the weekends back then. Her job expanded with the Med, as the restaurant moved to its current location and eventually opened its bakery wing in 2001. Since then, the Med bakery has offered breads, pastries, and pies every day of the week—meaning, Gamero has also been waking up before the sun for years. Every morning, she walks from her Hyde Park apartment over to the bakery to start preparations for the day.
“I used to come exactly at 4 o’clock or 3 o’clock,” she said as she cleaned out the industrial mixer. “But it all depends on how much work we have to produce.”
Gamero’s secret to tolerating such early mornings is not coffee. “My philosophy is you have to do something that you love. If you don’t love, nothing is good,” she said as she lined up apple slices for a batch of turnovers.
At this point in the morning, the bakers were preparing pastries for the weekend. With UChicago homecoming festivities drawing families and alumni to Hyde Park, this weekend would be particularly busy. An inventory clipboard indicates that they plan to churn out 1,291 items that morning. By the time the sun was rising, the bakery was already in full swing: Multigrain loaves, baguettes, pretzels, and rolls all made their way into a 500-degree industrial oven. Most of the items are displayed at the storefront and sold by the end of the day. Others get delivered to local establishments like Hyde Park Produce. Any leftovers are either made into breadcrumbs and croutons, or they’re donated to local shelters or staff members’ church communities.
Mario Silva stands in front of the oven dusting browned flour from the countertop. Using a large paddle, he pushes trays of dough into the heat and draws out golden brown loaves. He has worked in the bakery since it opened 14 years ago. Before that, Silva worked in the Med restaurant, cooking in the kitchen and bussing tables for nine years, which makes this his 23rd year at the Medici.
“I wanted to learn; so I moved over to the bakery,” Silva said.
The bakers spend every morning finishing up loose ends and preparing for the next morning of baking, while Hyde Parkers and University affiliates alike gather at their neighborhood watering hole.
“It’s good food at a reasonable price,” Kathy Morsbach said. “Some people think the food has gotten too expensive, but the menu has pretty much stayed the same.”
Four-year-old Tessa Holmquist-Kuhn has lived in Hyde Park with her family for almost two years. In that time, she has become a connoisseur of the Med, in the words of her mother Sabrina Holmquist. When asked about her favorite options, she started with ice cream, but felt inclined to include a few more.
“And the muffins, and the milkshakes, and the apple croissant, and the chocolate croissant,” she listed. “And the cookies! And the brownies!”
Aya Hamlish, a 14-year-old student at Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School, brought a family friend, who was visiting from Cambridge, MA, to enjoy a pretzel at the Med bakery.
“I don’t come here every day, but I come here quite a lot,” she said. She fondly recalled carving her name in one of the tables.
“It’s fun to see your name there,” Hamlish said.
Fourth-year Catherine Cove has also left her mark on the restaurant. She has been coming to the Med “since prospie weekend,” when her family friend suggested visiting the Hyde Park staple. But when asked what she craved, she demurred. “It’s rather inappropriate, so I’d rather not say,” she said with a laugh.
The tables and benches in the Med now bear the names of over 50 years of Hyde Park residents and sojourners, all part of a tradition that Morsbach kept alive. “That was my husband. He thought [the table carving] was kind of cool, and so he let it go.”
Hans Morsbach passed away in 2011, leaving his legacy in the establishments that outlived him. “As my son said at the funeral, [Hans] was a guy so unique that he created a hole that nothing else would ever fill,” Kathy Morsbach said. She now owns the restaurant, but it’s Esterly who is at the forefront of day to day business.
Hyde Park continues to shed old layers and grow new ones. With the recent opening of the new Harper Court, memories of the old Med location fade further into memory. Packed, a new dumpling restaurant, is slated to join the Med on 57th Street, in the space that housed Edwardo’s Natural Pizza for 36 years.
But 1327 East 57th Street has stayed the same. The Med plans to carry on, business as usual.
“For me, that’s always there in my mind: Making sure I’m carrying on the Medici tradition in a way that he [Hans] would have wanted,” Esterly said. “I think he would be pleased with what we have done and how it’s carrying on.”
Medici on 57th employees pose with a statue of a bishop. (undated) THE CHICAGO MAROON ARCHIVES
Photos by Kiran Misra.