Chicago knows a lot about food, but it knows very little about diners. Chicago Magazine readers recently confirmed this lingering instinct when they voted Little Goat Diner as the city’s best.
Little Goat Diner, Stephanie Izard’s colossal space on Randolph Row, may be a respite from the delicate small plates and ticket-entry restaurants the city has become known for, and it may be one of the few places within city limits where you can satisfy swine and sweet tooth cravings with one milkshake. A diner, however, it is not.
Both Little Goat Diner and even Chicago Magazine readers’ runner-up, Eleven City Diner, are true diners to the same extent as Chipotle is an authentic Mexican Grill. Like the World Showcase food stands at Epcot or the Led Zeppelin 1977 t-shirts tweens can buy at Sears, any restaurant younger than 40 years old that calls itself a diner is probably not the real thing.
As the food media machine continues to leaven faceless cooks into celebrity idols, and as said idols continue appropriating historical restaurant concepts into “modern twists” and “reimaginations” of their former glory, the definition of what it means to be a diner has become diluted, if not forgotten completely.
The purists among us, as a result, have dedicated time and word counts to ruminating on the definition of a true diner. First and foremost, to be a diner means to be all-welcoming and equalizing. Diners don’t turn people away for a lack of sportcoat, or a baby in tow. Diner pricing is affordable, whether you’re a blue collar single parent or part of the barely-there middle class. Diners are ready to serve you hot coffee and an egg preparation of your choosing whenever the need strikes, even when it strikes at 3 a.m.
As John Leavitt explains in an insightful diner meditation in The Awl, diners “exist outside socioeconomic distinctions, because there is something for everyone.” Diners breed unity, because everyone needs to eat. The stir fried pea tendrils and $18 chilaquiles (available after midnight only) at some of Chicago’s young, self-proclaimed “diners” make it clear that these places are not for everyone.
In regards to what qualifies as diner food, Serious Eats’ founder Ed Levine offers a few non-negotiable criteria that must be met.
Authentic diners have “common menus,” featuring breakfast at all hours, and a familiar assortment of meal-sized salads, sandwiches and melts, not to mention plate-blanketing entrees like meatloaf, bottom-crust chicken pot pie and liver. In true diners, before you’ve been seated and offered a laminated, encyclopedic menu, you pass by (and gaze longingly at) a well-lit, refrigerated case of rotating fruit pies, meringues and carrot cakes. When you glance behind the counter – because there should be a counter – there will be a row of miniature cereal boxes standing proudly.
Diners are also institutions of, as Levine posits,“culinary anonymity.” Diners are not chef-driven. Diner owners and cooks do not worry about personal brands or expansion or t-shirt logos or bottled proprietary sauces. Diners, if they have websites, don’t push merchandise through them.
Hopefully these details help to clarify what a diner is not. Diners have low stools and formica counters and vinyl booths, not al fresco patios and rooftop decks. They don’t demand customers pay extra for a side of fries when ordering a sandwich or hamburger, nor do they charge more than $10 for said burger. At a real diner, soup or salad and two sides are probably included in your meal. In the best diner you may wait a few minutes for a seat, but diners never take reservations. Diners don’t tell you that the wait for a dinner table is four hours, and ask if you have a phone number they can text when your table is up.
The beauty of diners, however, is that they’re not about the food. They’re about the feeling. You swing by a diner because you’re hungry not only for sugar and starch, but for comfort. Diners are the places that high schoolers can afford to go with their underemployed friends and eat like teenage kings and queens. They’re where you go when you need a reminder that people are still capable of treating each other the right way, because that’s what diner cashiers and servers do. They’re the perfect place to fit 20 friends you want to celebrate your birthday with when it falls on a weeknight in college. Diners are where you go after the concert or bar to soak up the buzz and recover your hearing, when your body refuses to sleep without onion rings and cake.
These feelings don’t come easy when you’re looking for a place to go after a show at Reggie’s or copious drinks at The Scout; Eleven City, despite its charm and winning brisket sandwich, shuts down at 10:30 p.m. on weekends. And you can’t establish those necessary human connections at Little Goat, where waiters process each check and the hostesses seem more interested in mastering the Kendall Jenner middle part than engaging you in friendly small talk.
Despite all this, Chicago is not a diner desert. There are still a handful of places in and not far outside the city that rightly uphold the diner name. The White Palace Grill on Roosevelt is probably one you’re familiar with: a 24-hour spot where even lines that snake from the middle of the room out the front door last fewer than 10 minutes. Don’t be shy about asking the cashier to pull down the basket of Dum Dums while you’re settling the bill, even if you’re over the age of 12. The Omega, a 24-hour bakery and restaurant in Niles, is another diner staple city dwellers would be foolish to skip. Go for dinner, order any “complete” entree and try spending less than 20 minutes ogling the pastry case to pick your complimentary dessert. Ask for a server named Joyce. To know her is to love her.
Little Goat, Eleven City, Au Cheval, Miss Ricky’s. These places aren’t entirely wrong to charge the prices they do, or write pork belly on their menus instead of bacon. Chicagoans aren’t wrong for giving them their business either. But for a city that frequently goes to the mattresses over the sanctity of deep dish pizza and beef sandwiches, the locals should be more devout in their efforts to preserve the purity of diners.