Chicago diners, side of extra crispy stories

Pass the syrup, indulge the immersive tour and a question: How did ‘the diner’ start, anyway?

May 14, 2013

Louisa Chu and Jennifer Brandel

The Slinger. The Jumpball. The Garbage Plate. The Deuces Wild RIP.

If you’re a regular at Chicago-area diners, you may know that these are the names of some legendary signature specials. And if you don’t yet, you’re in for a treat because Curious Citizen Rachel Kimura asked us:

"Where are the area's oldest diners and what are their stories?"

Rachel elaborated: "I love going to diners where it is evident that the waitresses and cooks have been around forever and probably have many stories to tell. I love that diners are a place where families, blue-collar workers, elderly couples, and hung-over twenty somethings can eat together."

Me too, Rachel. When Curious City creator and producer Jennifer Brandel asked if I’d investigate the question, I said (paraphrasing), Heck yeah.

I wrote, “I'm a lifelong fan of diners, thanks to the only grandfather I ever knew, the late, great Frank Hugh. I remember three of his diners vividly. One was an actual old railroad dining car parked just west of my great-grandfather's laundry on Grand Avenue.”

OK, so back to Rachel’s question(s): Old? Check. Thanks to domu’s terrific list of vintage Chicago restaurants.

But how do we define a diner? As I wrote previously, our friends at Chicagoist happened to have listed their favorite diners recently. With all due respect, not all their favorites are diners — at least not in my book.

After a Waffle Combo Meal with two eggs over easy, ham, hash browns and coffee at Cozy Corner Restaurant and Pancake House in Chicago (the Kelvyn Park location, not the 1977 original Logan Square location) I came to a decision. How will we define a diner?

I know it when I see it.

A detour, for the sake of comparison

But first, I had to go off to Asia for work, which actually helped further define our diner parameters.

In Shanghai, I went on a futile search for the Four Heavenly Kingsdabing (Chinese pancake), youtiao (Chinese fry bread), steamed sticky rice ball and soy milk. This was once the most common breakfast order on land first settled in the 5th century, in the most populous city in the world. But, I was told repeatedly, it’s old fashioned street food that they didn’t have. Would I like tea or caffè latte instead?

In Singapore I made my way to the original 1919 location of Killiney Kopitiam, the oldest coffee shop in the Southeast Asian city-state-island country. Their specialty is a thick crust version of the national breakfast: kaya toast with soft cooked eggs, and coffee.

So after a global diner race against a ticking clock, I further refined our diner parameters: They would be diners on an endangered species list. And perhaps they could represent us on the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list. Some are more “endangered” than others, and one is, in fact, extinct.

1920s to 1950s Pullman Rail Journeys

But before we tell some of the stories of the area’s oldest diners, we need to visit the origin story. Luckily history had pulled into the station. At Chicago’s Amtrak yard we visited some of the original Pullman train cars, which date between the ‘20s and ‘50s. There, we spoke with executive chef Daniel Traynor and head steward Jason Makor as they prepared to depart for New Orleans. George Pullman established his eponymous company in 1862. Traynor has researched Pullman culinary history and explained that every line had a signature French toast. Pullman bread, the dense, crumbed white bread still baked in a lidded metal pan, was invented to fit in tight train galleys. Makor to this day recreates the meticulous table settings; in particular, he uses doilies for every compartmentalized dish, as Pullman himself dictated until his death in 1897. Traynor explained that dining cars once connected farmers, local food producers, diners, and chefs. These dining cars also contributed to a long-term trend; the cars were self-contained, meaning they could operate as free-standing restaurants. So when dining cars went out of commission, some became the diners we know today.

1926 Franks Diner in Kenosha, Wisconsin

Husband and wife owners Julie Rittmiller and Kevin Ervin clarified a common misconception about Franks: It is not, in fact, a repurposed railroad diner car. In 1926 Greek immigrant Anthony Franks bought the brand new restaurant from Jerry O'Mahony Inc., "Lunch Car Builders," in Bayonne, N.J. It was shipped on rail flat car (hence its design), and it was filled with dishware and flatware, too. Julie showed us the original bread box which will be refurbished and displayed. She said the diner is haunted by an unknown female ghost who — late one night — blew open a storeroom door. This, it turned out, was helpful, mostly because Julie’s hands happened to be full at the time. Franks special: the Garbage Plate.

 

1933 Moon’s Sandwich Shop, Chicago

Let’s address the elephant in the room. Moon’s opened in 1933 and was named for its former moonshiner owners. In its current building since 1947, you may notice most everyone in the room — in front of the counter, as well as behind it — is African-American. Except perhaps for a few longtime regulars and owner Jim Radek, who’s a cross between Bruce Willis and Al Pacino. Radek, a former regular due to his work as a neighborhood police officer, told us the harrowing tale of one rough day. Nearly two dozen locals chased a guy into Moon’s, or rather to its threshold. Radek told them they couldn’t continue the pursuit because Moon’s was a sanctuary. Like church. And so it was and remains to this day. Moon’s special: the Jumpball.

 

1937 Diner Grill, Chicago

Open 24 hours a day since 1937 (“March 15 8AM,” to be precise, according to the original framed black and white photo behind the counter). Managers Ricardo Hernandez (days) and Kenny Coster (nights) have been working the grill for 12 and 11 years, respectively. The restaurant is an old trolley car and sits at the end of its former trolley line. The busiest hours are between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. Ricardo once worked the night shift himself and says he doesn’t know how Kenny still does it. Kenny says he’s had to talk would-be pole dancers down during their night of revelry. While passing out is not encouraged, they do let diners sleep it off, presumably if they can stay perched on the stools. Diner Grill’s special: the Slinger.

 

1960 Ohio House Coffee Shop, Chicago

While the coffee shop dated back 53 years, owner Cathy Roquemore was there about 30. Cathy served the last Deuces Wild on Sunday, April 28, 2013. After more than three decades behind the counter, she was given 30 days to vacate. Cathy started out as an employee — the only employee, actually. The former owner, a drinking buddy of her husband’s, came to her house and said, “Cathy, I need you!” She bought the place herself when her husband died. She said she was going to take a two-week break then decide what to do next. Regulars can find Cathy, former waitress Kim Jurgensen, and each other on their Facebook page, Save the Ohio House Coffee Shop. Ohio House Coffee Shop special: Deuces Wild RIP.

A big thanks to Chicago’s most notable diner owners and managers who also took the time to chat:

When I started investigating Rachel’s diner question, I’d written, “I will be carrying my own personal bottle of real maple syrup, and my own thermally insulated whipped cream.”

I didn’t. Because that wouldn’t have been nice. And one of the rules at diners: Be nice or leave. Pass me the pancake syrup, because I’d like to stay and hear some more stories.

Follow Louisa Chu @louisachu.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the company that Anthony Franks bought his restaurant from. The company's name is Jerry O'Mahony Inc., "Lunch Car Builders," of Bayonne, N.J.

Categories