Sometimes it's a friendly waitress or cozy ambience that people remember about a restaurant years after it closes.
This time, it's the doughnut holes.
Wait staff at the eatery, which opened in August 1959, dropped off the complimentary powdered-sugar-covered balls in wooden salad bowls shortly after diners sat down. That was more than a decade before Dunkin' Donuts introduced "Munchkins."
"It was a way of keeping the children quiet while they waited to get their food," said Jim Sullivan, who managed the restaurant and later a second location in Downers Grove. One of the company's co-owners, Bernard Fox, came up with the idea because he hated going to restaurants and feeling ignored before a waiter would appear.
"They were just used as a calling card to bring out and say, 'Here's something to nibble on, I'll be right back,' " Sullivan said.
Fox had many ideas for his budding business. The former candy and cough-drop factory owner envisioned a menu that mimicked the hearty fare from Omaha, where he grew up. He bought a property with a giant 300-car parking lot and a 36-lane bowling alley.
Then, as luck would have it, Reno Zarantonello moved in next door. "Mr. Reno," as everyone knew him, had been operating Joe's Place, a steakhouse in Thornton with his brother. After a few conversations, Fox talked Zarantonello into co-owning and managing the Oak Lawn restaurant.
It wasn't long before The Branding Iron was a local favorite, serving up barbecued ribs with special sauce; salads with a Lazy Susan of French, thousand island and creamy garlic dressings; and baked potatoes instead of French fries.
"This was before barbecued ribs were available at every pizza joint. They cooked them over live hickory logs," Sullivan said. "If you were driving west on 95th Street, you could follow your nose to the Branding Iron because of the rib smell."
Sullivan chuckled recalling how patrons from the predominantly Catholic surrounding neighborhood would bowl until midnight on Fridays during Lent, when their religion required them to abstain from eating meat. At 12:01, they'd line up at the restaurant for a barbecue dinner.
By the early 1970s, The Branding Iron had a steady and reliable staff -- including Sullivan, who lived on the same block as Zarantonello and Fox, and went on to marry one of Zarantonello's daughters. So its owners decided to open a second location -- the corner of Butterfield and Finley roads was the first place where they could afford property.
When Zarantonello began having health problems in the early 1970s, he stepped back from day-to-day restaurant operations and eventually retired in Arizona.
Both restaurants operated smoothly through most of the 1980s, even after the Environmental Protection Agency ordered The Branding Iron to abandon its open fire pit cooking method and use a safer stainless steel, cabinet-like roasting chamber, Sullivan said.
In the late 1980s, the original owners decided it was time to cash out. The Downers Grove location closed first, followed shortly by the Oak Lawn location in spring of 1988.
Because potential buyers hesitated to buy both a bowling alley and restaurant at once, the owners agreed to tear down the building and sell the land. They sold much of the bowling equipment to the Willowbrook Bowl.
The street near the former Downers Grove location still is named Branding Lane.
Weeks before the final day of business, restaurant regulars begged Sullivan for the creamy garlic dressing recipe and even now he hears from people who remember the ribs and especially the doughnut holes.
"People are missing it; that's good to know," Sullivan said. "It makes me feel good."
"What Ever Happened To ..." runs Fridays in the West Chicagoland Extra. If you have a fond memory from the area that you'd like reported and updated, send it to Vikki Ortiz Healy at email@example.com. Read past columns at chicagotribune.com/vikki.
What ever happened to ... The Branding Iron?
« Previous Story More Topic pages Next Story »
We've upgraded our reader commenting system. Learn more about the new features.
The Baltimore Sun encourages civil dialogue related to our stories; you must register and log-in to our site in order to participate. We reserve the right to remove any user and to delete comments that violate our Terms of Service. By commenting, you agree to these terms. Please flag inappropriate comments.