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.
Chicago, like most major metropolises east and west of it, offers a promising array of ethnic food purveyors to accommodate most whims.
There is the requisite Chinatown (recently raided by none other than the FBI), Little Italy, Greektown. There are easily reachable neighborhoods off the pink and blue L lines for when a carnitas craving hits hard. There’s plenty of Thai and Thai fusion and an excellent Vietnamese chain. If you venture to the right corners, you’ll find a decent Jewish deli and inconceivable options for Indian cuisine. There are, of course, the gluttonous Brazilian steakhouses and sushi dens tucked into inconspicuous split levels. You won’t be hard-pressed to find a few Ethiopian options.
If you’ve read through this list and are feeling disorientated and slightly offended by the absence of Cuban food, I get it.
Chicago’s heart broke a little this May. Not because (at that point) the Blackhawks were skating close to playoff defeat by the L.A. Kings, but because news broke that a small corner of the city’s essence – a now internationally renowned hot dog stand, Hot Doug’s – would be serving the last of its encased meats in October 2014.
On a recent work-from-home Friday (made that much more enviable by the beloved summer half-day schedule), it was time to make the public transit pilgrimage to Avondale and pay our respects.
If you have any plans to do the same between now and the fall, hopefully these semi-organized observations and recommendations will serve you well. And if they don’t, you can be sure Doug will.
- The line will be longer than you’ve ever seen it. Yes, even longer than that one time last summer you came on a Friday, and definitely longer than that winter day you spent glued to the cement, wishing the feeling back into your toes. Don’t be discouraged. It does move. Clear out your inbox or, as many do, bring a book to pass the time.
- Don’t be that guy or gal who brings chairs. If it’s dual cup holders and the feeling of flimsy nylon under your bottom that you want, may I suggest Ravinia or any of the hundred movie/concert events in Millennium Park? There are 8 year olds who stand in this line and make due. You’re just as capable.
- If you’re gonna be a quitter, be a decisive quitter. When there are hungry hordes around you, no one wants to be forced to eavesdrop on your party’s roundabout argument of whether to keep waiting or bounce. Don’t linger in line just to call Kuma’s Corner – they don’t give wait times over the phone anyways. If you’re even considering a jaunt to Wrigleyville instead, just leave. You’ll expedite the line for everyone else.
- Ice cream is a sufficient appetizer. If you visit during the summer months, it’s likely that an ice cream truck will be parallel parked next to the line. The man has cold water bottles, which you’ll likely need. Given that you’ll be waiting anywhere between 1 and 3 hours for your main course, a Drumstick won’t squash your appetite.
- Summer rain moves fast. It’s the Midwest. It’s humid. More likely than not, there will be the chance of a passing shower during one of your hours on the line. The brightest of us all will pack an umbrella; the semi-prepared will at least have hats. The unpredictability of Chicago precipitation is offset by the universal knowledge that it will only last a few minutes. Don’t ditch over a few droplets.
- Meeting people is easy. In this line, at least. Once the deserters are gone, you’ll likely be sandwiched between a couple groups of true devotees. Your cause is united; your hunger pangs are collective. Celebrate the small wins together, like when an employee comes out and lets you know that it’s only another hour for your chunk of the line. If you’re lucky, maybe a new compatriot will share their umbrella during that fleeting shower.
- Consider it a 2 dog per person minimum. You’ve waited that long; you deserve it. And there are too many creative options to have to settle on one. Balance out the familiarity and consistency of a Shirley Hardman (corn dog) with one of the more foreign daily specials – it will be awhile until you ever find foie gras between a bun, or encased crayfish again.
- Smile. If Doug can stand behind that counter (albeit looking a little more tired, a little more gray than the last time, maybe) and smile at each and every hangry soul six days a week, you can too. Smile in line. Smile back at Doug. Smile at the hot dogged American Gothic wall mural in the women’s bathroom. Smile at the duck fat fries as they’re plopped down on your table. You’re hungry and your tolerance for socializing is plummeting fast. Just smile. You will eat. It will be worth it. And before you know it, it will be gone.