HIGHLAND PARK – Walking into Norton’s feels like traveling back in time to the iconic TV tavern Cheers, “where everybody knows your name,” complete with regulars perched on designated bar stools.
“Bud Light Bob has been coming since Norton’s opened in 1999, and Goose is another long-time customer,” said Jeffrey Mages, co-owner, who nicknamed them after their favorite drinks. “Bud Light could be a skinnier Norm from Cheers, and we have many regulars that remind us of the other characters.”
Cheers’ Norm was an accountant who always sat on the same bar stool, and whenever he walked in everyone would yell out “Norm!” The Emmy award-winning series ran from 1982-1993.
Though Norton’s has a Cheers vibe, it was actually named after a character from another classic TV series: Ed Norton from The Honeymooners (1955-1956).
“We just kicked names around in our heads and came up with Norton – the sewer worker played by Art Carney — on The Honeymooners,” said Mages. Norton always wore a hat and if you look closely enough you can see it featured on the menu.
Mages said, “When I first opened, a gentleman from Florida said he represented Jackie Gleason, [the star of The Honeymooners and told me that I couldn’t copy the name Norton. So I went out and got jerseys because there are ball players with the name Norton and I got [pictures of Norton] motorcycles and I never saw the man again.”
Mages lives in Deerfield and grew up in Wilmette. His business partner, Richard Holleb, grew up in Evanston and they’ve been friends since sixth grade. Mages said he and Holleb divide their responsibilities equally, though Mages considers himself to be the “fun partner.”
Mages said his wife used to work at the restaurant “but she got tired of yelling at me.” Holleb’s wife continues to help out and Mages has known her since she worked at Irving’s For Red Hot Lovers.
“I started the first Irving’s in Wilmette near Edens Plaza in 1975,” said Mages. “Then we opened in two locations on Dempster Street: by Lutheran General Hospital and another by the Skokie Swift. We had a couple stores in Chicago too.”
“We had 13 stores at one time,” said Mages, who also owned U Dawg U. After he took a break for a year, Mages decided that he wanted to get back into the business. Then he came across the site that previously housed the Ort Resale Store at 1905 Sheridan Road, and it “turned out to be the Cheers of Highland Park.”
Mages said he enjoys interacting with people. “I’ve been a counter guy because I’ve had hot dog joints and now I’m behind the bar talking to people.”
Norton’s specialties are burgers, salads and ribs. “Our build-your-own burgers are made fresh every day and we make the half-pound patties by hand, so they’re never frozen, and we use good quality meat,” said Mages. The turkey burger is Mages’ mother-in-law’s recipe and a recent Norton’s customer made a point of telling DailyNorthShore that it tasted “delicious.”
The menu offers a variety of items including pizza, fajitas and chicken parmesan. Norton’s also serves lighter fare from the blackened salmon sandwich and Portobello veggie sandwich, to chicken stir fry and lake perch.
“We’re known for good cocktails,” said Mages. “We’ve basically had the same menu since we opened, with a few tweaks.” He’ll often offer complimentary desserts for customers after a big meal, and on Saturday nights customers can dance the calories away to live music when the restaurant is transformed into Norton’s Music Palace at 9:30 p.m.
There’s no cover charge, and due to the popularity of the live bands ranging from blues to classic rock Mages recommends arriving by 8 p.m.
Norton’s has a quaint courtyard in back, but in warm weather more people prefer to dine al fresco in front of the restaurant to stop and chat with passersby.
Mages enjoys staying connected with the customers and has given Norton’s T-shirts to “a lot of guys from Fort Sheridan who have gone to Iraq.” Mages added that many customers have generously bought service people lunches at Norton’s.
“What the Fort Sheridan guys do for us is unbelievable,” he said.
Norton’s has had the same kitchen and wait staff since the restaurant opened nearly 18 years ago. “We’ve seen a lot of restaurants come and go,” said Mages. “I don’t know if it’s because we’re lucky or we’re good, but we’re still here. Many older folks are no longer with us and kids have grown up and brought their own kids.”
Fortunately, Mages has a knack for remembering names.
Norton’s is located at 1905 Sheridan Road in Highland Park. For more information call 847/432-3287.