LINCOLN PARK — There must be something in the cheese.
Whatever special sauce Geja's Cafe includes in its fondue pots has resulted in more than 16,000 engagements and 137,000 first dates over the past 50 years.
The Lincoln Park staple is celebrating its 50th year in business this month, as well as a change in ownership.
According to Geja's estimates, which new owner and former managing partner Jeff Lawler swears are accurate, the restaurant has melted 312 tons of cheese fondue and popped open 933,100 bottles of wine during its reign.
Lawler has personally orchestrated more than 300 engagements at the restaurant.
"It's literally three a week," he said. "I've had a three a night and I've had 12 in a week."
The change of hands in the restaurant's 50th year should be as smooth as the cheese in a bubbling pot of fondue.
Lawler, who has worked at Geja's for 21 years, bought the business from long-time owner John Davis.
He has vowed to take his experience and love for the restaurant and its staff and ensure the success of the business moving forward: "It's a very, very, very special dream opportunity, and honor," Lawler said. "I'm looking forward to carrying it on another 25 years until I'm 75."
Lawler has been running the restaurant since Davis moved to Park City, Utah, six years ago.
"Jeff has intimate knowledge of running the business. I think it will be a good thing for Chicago," Davis said. "Geja's means a lot for a lot of people."
Something about the dimly lit restaurant, attentive wait staff and fondue-dipping has made it a hotbed for romance since its inception.
Geja's wasn't always located at its Lincoln Park location at 340 W. Armitage Ave. The establishment opened on Wells Street in Old Town in 1965 as a small wine bar, quite possibly the city's first wine bar.
The wine and cheese cafe idea popped into Davis's head after a trip to the vineyards and wineries of Europe in the '60s while America still had a "beer and whiskey" culture.
"Wine at that time was not the beverage it is today," Davis said. "It was a foreign beverage, almost a subversive beverage."
"Rents went up and the artists left and you had this kind of Bohemian atmosphere that really was a magnet for all kinds of people seeking an identity," Davis said "Hard travelers and yuppies and hippies. Wonderful characters."
Suburban kids used to come down, change their clothes and become hippies for the weekend, according to Davis.
"It was a kind of swingin' street," Davis said. "There were four folk clubs between Division and North Avenue on Wells."
Davis remembers a particular foot-patrol officer in the neighborhood who regularly kept watch on his wine bar, which was across the street from the the jazz club the Plugged Nickel, 1321 N. Wells St.
Chicago Police officer Fred "Freddie" Hoff provided an "iron umbrella" over the Geja's storefront and was instrumental during the early days on Wells, according to Davis: "On several occasions Fred prevented some altercations that could have turned serious."
Hoff played guitar and brought in the first flamenco guitar player to strum at Geja's on Wells. The tradition of flamenco guitar continues to this day.
Although Hoff died two years ago, his wife, Sylvia Hoff, and daughter will attend the 50th anniversary celebration.
Davis recalled the "seedy" environment on Wells Street during the late '60s, and he said a murder four blocks west of Wells that garnered screaming headlines in the papers was the turning point to move north.
"That did it," he said. "My own relatives wouldn't come down anymore so we moved."
Geja's moved to Armitage in 1971 and adopted fondue as a complement to the wine bar in order to stay afloat, as the new restaurant was three times the size of the original wine bar.
"Being a wine and cheese cafe with a few little sandwiches wasn't going to cut it," Davis said.
The move to Lincoln Park occurred just as two other iconic restaurants opened in the neighborhood, RJ Grunts and Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder.
"I've always found it interesting, the little triangle of restaurants we have over here," Lawler said. "Instead of coming into the neighborhood like now and trying to conform to it, Lincoln Park has conformed around these three restaurants."
To celebrate the big 5-0, Geja's hosted its first engagement story contest, asking couples to send in a narrative of their engagement at the restaurant.
Lincoln Park residents Jeff Winter and Michelle Desjardins took home the honor thanks to Winter's elaborate description of his proposal back in 2013. He had the wait staff from the restaurant place tiny frames on the table one by one until they spelled out "You Are My Dream Come True." Winter then danced his way into the room, with perfected choreography to a Bruno Mars song.
There was no question that's where he wanted to propose, as the two went to Geja's on one of their first dates.
"It's dark in there and you can sort of just forget about the city and the world around you," Desjardins said.
More than 50 married couples who got engaged at Geja's, including Winter and Desjardins, were invited to a 50th anniversary party that will be held Saturday.
"When you add in the element of fondue, fondue dining really brings people together whether you are a couple on the first date and don't know what to say to each other or have been in love a long time," Lawler said. "I quickly fell in love with Geja's. I know that it was a very special place."
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