Merle’s Barbecue closes after two decades

Marshall Cohen

After nearly 20 years of serving up smoked meats to hungry Evanston residents, Merle’s Barbecue, 1727 Benson Ave., closed its doors for the last time on Jan. 1.

“Since 1992 Merle’s has proudly served the Chicago area,” read a sign on the restaurant’s front door. “Unfortunately, as of January 1, we lost our lease and are closed for business. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you. We will miss you very much but wish you all a great 2012!”

Those parting words were also posted on Merle’s website.

Phone calls made Monday to the restaurant’s two phone numbers went unanswered.

The restaurant, known for its authentic barbecue ribs, chicken and pulled pork, attracted customers from Evanston and other nearby cities.

“I like barbecue, I like ribs, and I knew it was out here and wanted to try it some time,” said Brett Pascal, who moved to Evanston four months ago. “I was looking for some places to try and Merle’s was one of them. We came by and found out it was closed so I guess we’re out of luck.”

As seen by the recent posts on the Merle’s Facebook page, many local residents were loyal customers and helped keep the restaurant in business for nearly two decades. However, the restaurant that once had the “best ribs,” according to Chicago Magazine, did suffer from a high-profile food poisoning controversy last year.

Last February, city health officials blamed “poor food handling practices” at Merle’s when 30 people fell ill after eating food catered by the local barbecue establishment during a Haven Middle School event. Merle’s owner Larry Huber fully denied the charges and said his restaurant was not responsible.

However, the farewell message on the Merle’s window and website also said “we will be happy to serve you at Davis Street Fishmarket.”

Although not explicitly stated in the message, Merle’s was owned by the Clean Plate Club Restaurant Group, which also owns Davis Street Fishmarket, 501 Davis St., and is still open for business.

Ed Huelke, general manager of the fish and seafood restaurant, said he was saddened to see a restaurant “in the same profile of price, atmosphere, and casual fine dining” as Davis Street Fishmarket close its doors permanently.

“We’re all sad about it,” Huelke said. “We want people to choose different places to go. It was an interesting place for a while and it’s always sad to see somebody go under.”

Huelke added the timing of the closing circumstances for Merle’s were not surprising.

“This always happens at the beginning of the year – when people fold up their little tent and move on to something else,” he said.

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