The Chicago Diner is the little restaurant that could.
Back when the Diner opened in 1983, the environment around vegetarianism was very different. Their location on Halsted was in the Lakeview neighborhood, which was considered a pretty beaten down, grungy place at the time. Today, Lakeview is a lively and fun place to be, with cafés, shops and clubs all around, and I think that the Chicago Diner has something to do with the revitalization of the area.
On any given day, there are people hanging out in front of the Diner, waiting for their names to be called. The Diner draws folks from the neighborhood, people from the Chicago area, and travelers who have come from a great distance to try their food. From the famous Radical Reuben (which helped them to be named as one of the ten best diners – number four, actually - in the entire U.S. by The Learning Channel on their “Darn Good Diners” episode) and their Sunday brunch to their legendary Chocolate Chip-Cookie Dough-Peanut Butter shake and massive sandwiches, the Diner was a pioneer with proving to the world that being meatless doesn’t a lifetime of depressing little sprout salads with lemon wedges. With a sexy little patio in the warmer months and roomy booths, a friendly but professional staff and its unpretentious vibe, the Diner is a comfortable, warm and inviting experience for patrons. The restaurant industry is famously tough and fickle: even sentimental favorites close all the time. The fact that the Chicago Diner could not only survive since 1983 but still draw big crowds every day is proof of their business savvy and great food. Good will alone will not keep a restaurant afloat.
After years of hearing rumors about new locations, the Diner is finally ready to open another venue in the city. This fall, they hope before Thanksgiving, the second location will open in the Logan Square neighborhood, in the space of the former Logan Square Kitchen, 2333 N. Milwaukee. Many thanks to Mickey Hornick, owner of the Chicago Diner, for taking the time out of his busy day to answer some questions.
Marla Rose: Why now? There have been rumors about a new Chicago Diner opening over the years and now finally one is going to open in Logan Square. What made this situation right for you?
Mickey Hornick: A few things came together. I had been looking for another location for some time to take some pressure off the current Diner and purchase the best, most modern cooking equipment for our staff. The new location is just great for our needs and in a great neighborhood. Our managers are doing a great job. Del Nakamura, Brandon Haydon and with the addition of Michael Hornick (our General Manager as of nine months ago) we actively want to grow. I also wanted a new challenge.
MR: What can we expect at the new Chicago Diner? Is it around the same seating capacity of the location on Halsted?
MH: Inside seating is a little larger. The space holds 75 including 11 at a counter/bar. Larger parties will be a little easier to accommodate, too.
MR: Is the menu at the Logan Square location going to be any different?
MH: The menu will be quite similar.
MR: Have you noticed any trends in terms of the kind of menu requests people
have these days? For example, more demand for raw foods, more gluten-free? I've noticed that your menu has become more and more vegan over the years to the point that dairy and eggs seem almost an afterthought. What percentage of your patrons order vegan at the Diner? Has this grown over the years?
MH: Raw is fun though a very small percentage of what people order. Gluten-free is also a small percentage though growing. [The Diner does have a menu designating the gluten-free and soy-free items available.] Ordering vegan was always popular at Diner, though in the ‘80s we just called it “dairy-free.” Vegan is about 50% of our orders and was 25-30% in earlier years.
MR: How is the Chicago vegetarian scene different than when you started in 1983? Could you have imagined that it would grow into something like it is today?
MH: Yes, I imagined it all the time and could not understand why it too so long. We did not have the Internet or social media to help spread information like today. With better education, knowledge, communicating information about environmental concerns, human health, morality, the economics of meat-centered diet, how can the consumer ignore the facts? Though eating is often not a thought out decision based on what is good for you. It is often a habitual choice or a social choice. At the Diner we try to keep it fun, friendly, and appreciative of our guests.
MR: Whenever I go to the Chicago Diner, I almost always see people in front, taking photos of the building, the menu and their food. How does it feel to have created this institution that draws hungry travelers from around the world?
MH: It feels good, though there is not too much resting on the past. It feels good to have worked with so many top-notch veggies and non-veggies too. I am a born and raised Chicagoan and I wanted to do some good in my hometown. Most of the time I think we have accomplished and influenced the city for the better.
Thanks so much, Mickey!