All-night filling stations
Slick newcomers may have retro looks, but real-deal diners are still the pulse of the city
Launching a throwback restaurant is easy: Purchase retro fixture reproductions and open the doors. But keeping a genuine diner from fading into a razed memory is tough amid big-city globalization that’s made sushi more popular than steak and eggs.
Within the last year, diners have been dropping like flies: DeMar’s, Cambridge House, Jewel’s Diner and Uptown Snack Shop among them. But a few owners of Chicago’s dying breed of 24-hour diners are fighting to hold onto their little piece of Americana—no matter how high the offer to sell it.
“Home Depot offered me a million dollars for this corner,” George Liakopoulos insists, standing where White Palace Grill (1159 S Central Ave at Roosevelt Rd, 312-939-7167) has stood since 1939. But Liakopoulos declined, saying diners are in his blood: His father owned a handful, and he himself presided over Lincoln Avenue’s Golden Apple through the ’80s and ’90s.
After taking over both Wicker Park’s Hollywood Grill (1601 W North Ave at Ashland Ave, 773-395-1818) and the legendary White Palace in 2000, Liakopoulos spent half a million bucks cleaning up the weathered spots. White Palace may have shiny new vinyl booths and a laminated menu touting “modern” dishes like taco salad, but the cops, hard-hats and third-shift coffee drinkers don’t seem to notice; they order “the usual” just the same. That new menu gets more wear at Hollywood, where yuppies and hipsters stumble in after bar-hopping for heaping plates of fried anything.
Farther south at Don’s Humburgers (1837 S Western Ave at 18th Pl, 312-733-9351), a handful of regulars clusters at the Formica counter sipping coffee and debating everything from the pointlessness of decaf to the price of gas. Don Wageman opened his counter-only grill in 1955, misspelled hamburger to turn heads, and told current owners Michael Schellerer and David Ambroz stories of suing McDonald’s for introducing a “Humburger” toy. Legend has it that the Happy Meal trinket was renamed Hamburglar, but story aside, it’s the grilled onion–topped, double humburger that remains the best-seller, keeping Don’s going despite the looming golden arches across the street.
The regulars who resist modern fast-food spots are the lifeline of these old-school diners, and though their stories may be different, they’ve found common ground. “We’re the place the homeless guy can come and warm up in winter, the lonely can come talk to somebody, the insomniac can come when they can’t sleep,” Frank DiPiero says of Jeri’s Grill (4357 N Western Ave at Montrose Ave, 773-604-8775), which he took over in 2000 when his father, the owner since ’63, passed away. “Corporate-owned places won’t let people like that in, and their ’50s themes, they’re not real. Here, what you see is what you get.”
And what you see has remained the same since opening day: Signs beckon with bone-in ham and biscuits and gravy, and diners dig into the fried bologna and eggs “jailhouse special,” lamenting the end of the nights when they could add to the smoke film covering the wood-paneled walls.
At Arnold DeMar’s Diner Grill (1635 W Irving Park Rd at Marshfield Ave, 773-248-2030), the dining car–like landmark his father opened in ’46, minijukes line the counter, a TV sputters out The Three Stooges, and a grease-splattered sign reads home of the slinger, don’t ask, just eat.
As DeMar (whose family also owned the now-shuttered DeMar’s) talks of passing along the diner to his son, his wife Sheila yells, “We wouldn’t sell it for a million bucks. It’s been there since I was a kid, it’s been there for all of our kids, our neighbors, our neighbors’ kids…it’s our little part of Chicago.”