Russell’s Barbecue, 1621 N. Thatcher Ave, Elmwood Park, has been a family tradition since 1930. The meat-focused mainstay originally found its home on North Avenue before moving to the expansive space built to house the rustic restaurant in the mid-1940’s. The building boasts a tall smokestack and wooden booths covered with red checkered tablecloths beckon guests to embrace retro recipes and savor the flavor of the past.
Ben Tapia, longtime manager of Russell’s Barbecue, started as a busboy at Russell’s when he was just 15 years old. He had to get a special permit to work under-age, and now 30 years later knows the business from top to bottom and keeps the kitschy restaurant running smoothly.
“Russell’s really was a hangout for people in the 1940s and 50s,” said Tapia. “There was nothing around here at all so this became a destination for families and couples. They would spend time in the restaurant and on the lawn. Russell’s was especially popular after a visit to Kiddieland.”
Russell’s menu has expanded over the years, but the original dishes are still among the most popular selections today. The limited early offerings included nothing more than simple hamburgers, beef and pork sandwiches, ribs and chicken.
The original Russell’s menu didn’t contain any smoked meats; 14-hour smoked brisket and pulled pork menu items were added in 2011. Tapia said Russell’s was established before wood smoked barbecue and aquarium smokers made their way onto Chicagoland restaurant menus. Russell’s smokeless barbecue allows the sauce to standout in their throwback dishes.
Today the original meat sandwiches, slab ribs and bone-in chicken continue to be slow roasted and served just as they were in 1930. The tender and simply seasoned meats are all designed to be doused with Russell’s barbecue sauce. Of course, the signature sauce, made on-site for use in dishes served in the restaurant, has remained the same over the decades and still contains the Jamaican spices and bold cinnamon notes that keep customers coming back to Russell’s year-after-year.
“We tried to modernize once and people got upset,” laughed Tapia. “I try my best to keep everything the same, but people like the nostalgia and want to continue enjoying the same dishes. A consistent recipe has been key for us.”
The big facility is part museum with large black and white photos and framed newspaper articles cluing diners into the rich history behind the restaurant. Loyal customers are resistant to changes to the property as they want their memories kept intact. During the pandemic, however, regular customers applauded the addition of a drive-thru to the property. The make-shift solution features a standalone “heater box” manned by a masked employee. Orders placed through the drive thru lane account for nearly 30% of all Russell’s sales.
“We knew we needed to do something fast, and we didn’t have thousands of dollars to spend,” said Tapia. “The drive-thru was a huge help and we would not have made it through the pandemic without it.”
While Russell’s has a “more modern” location in Countryside, Tapia is proud that Russell’s was born in Elmwood Park. The charming barbecue joint is a local landmark of sorts and a place where wistful folks can step back in time and savor a timeless memory.
“Many of our older customers come back here because they went on dates here and now, they bring their grandchildren to eat here,” said Tapia proudly. “The Russell’s tradition that goes on and on.”