Rogers Park resident Miles Downie has a thing for split pea soup.
That’s right, the gross-looking-but-surprisingly-tasty green soup that’s often a staple of home cooking.
And what makes a good pea soup? “Thick, non-vegetarian, I do like a little ham in it,” says Miles. “And the croutons — you know, the greasier, the thicker the better. That’s what makes it.” (Yes, the standard restaurant version of pea soup gets adorned with croutons.)
Miles is a native of London, England, and first discovered split pea decades ago in the Chicago area, back when he was working on the West Side.
“[I] used to go to a diner called Ferndell’s [Ferndell Restaurant] on the corner of North and Pulaski. And every Wednesday was split pea soup day. I thought nothing of it but enjoyed the soup for many, many years.”
That is, until Miles’ company moved to the suburbs, and he was forced to look for a new lunch spot. He found a couple Greek-owned diner-type restaurants out there, and that’s when he noticed the pattern.
“Strangely, they too had split pea soup specials on Wednesdays,” Miles says. So he asked Curious City: Is it true that most Chicago diners serve split pea soup on Wednesdays? If so, why?
There is a short answer to Miles’ question: it turns out “split pea Wednesday” may not really be a thing. Yes, there are lots of restaurants that do serve split pea on Wednesday! But after calling or visiting some 20 establishments in the city and suburbs, we think there are just as many serving pea soup on days other than Wednesday.
Still, Miles is definitely onto something in that restaurants do tend to serve up their split pea soup on a consistent day of the week.
Take Manny’s Cafeteria & Delicatessen in the South Loop. They make pea soup every Tuesday. Why? “That’s how my great grandfather decided to do it,” says Dan Raskin, the fourth generation owner-operator at Manny’s.
That’s four generations of split pea soup on Tuesday. But there’s no rhyme or reason to it?
“No, that’s just the day that he picked for split pea soup, so we’ve always done it on Tuesday.” Just like Monday is always Navy Bean and Wednesday is mushroom barley. (And of course, every day is matzah ball, which outsells other soups 100 to 1, Raskin says.)
Then there’s Angelo Mavraganes, whose parents opened Stella’s Diner in Lakeview in 1962.
Stella’s serves split pea soup every Thursday.
Mavragnes says lots of Greek-owned restaurants do tend to serve menu items on a consistent day of the week, and that goes way back.
“It was kind of a set thing,” says Mavragnes “They had leg of lamb on Sundays, beef stew on Mondays. Thursday was split pea. And it seemed like every restaurant you went to, we all kind of kept the same thing going, you know? I was right there with them.”
The day of the week a soup gets served is not all random. For example, lots of places offer clam chowder or vegetable soup on Fridays — that’s thanks to Lent.
And not everyone is on board with the whole “soup of the day” strategy. Ken Hechtman of Ken’s Diner in Skokie says his diner has been making split pea soup — get this! — every single day they’ve been open, since 1976.
“It’s much better off that you have people come in for something when they feel like they’re hungry. They shouldn’t have to wait till Wednesday to get the soup they want. We’re not into — you know — having a soup on a specific day,” says Hechtman.
Soups and Scoops in Chicago’s Edison Park neighborhood doesn’t have a set day for particular soups, but they post to Instagram and Facebook the night before to let everyone know what soups they’re serving the next day.
Just don’t change the soup
Still, the folks at Huck Finn Restaurant on Archer Avenue in McKinley Park say they have no choice but to serve pea soup every Wednesday.
“That’s what they come for on Wednesdays — split pea soup. So if you don’t have it, then people get mad,” says employee Irma Zepeda.
Chef Chris Alexander agrees.
“If we change, the people say, ‘Hey! What happened to the split pea?’ It’s the people, not me,” he says. Owner Paul Hiotis says in his 40 years with the restaurant, split pea has always been on Wednesdays.
Alexander tried switching out cream of broccoli once, alternating it with cream of potato on Tuesdays. It didn’t go well.
“They come Tuesday — they see cream of broccoli. [They say], ‘Oh, what happened to the potatoes?’ They see potatoes? ‘Oh, what happened to broccoli? You cannot please everybody.”
Alexander is 75 years old. He started working in Chicago restaurants when he was 18.
“I’m in the kitchen all my life — 10 restaurants! I used to have my own restaurant,” says Alexander.
Back when he started, he remembers restaurants were packed — he’d make lamb stew and chicken kiev for hundreds. Now, so many restaurants have closed.
“The new generation — hot dogs, hamburgers, french fries! Everything change,” says Alexander pensively. “People change, weather change— everything change.”
Maybe that’s part of why people hold on so tightly to the day their favorite soup is served. With the whole world shifting, don’t change the soup! Not the soup.
Linda Lutton covers Chicago neighborhoods for WBEZ. Follow her @lindalutton.