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Lou Mitchell's restaurant is a true Chicago institution

Diners wait in line at Lou Mitchell's Restaurant
Robin Zimmerman

Chicago might be the city that works, but it’s also a town that’s constantly reinventing itself. It’s been that way from the get-go and shows no signs of letting up. The once-slovenly South Loop has suddenly become chic and trendy. Meanwhile, over at the site of the old Maxwell Street Market, you’ll find that Jamba Juice and yoga studios have replaced the street peddlers, hustlers and blues buskers.

That’s why a leisurely stroll around LaSalle Street can be reassuring for history purists. Here, there are still solid, time-tested edifices like Union Station and the art-deco inspired Board of Trade building. These classic structures have had starring roles on the silver screen and serve as a vivid reminder of Chicago’s golden age when it was a major transportation hub and commerce center.

The intersection around Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue also served as the starting point for travelers making their way along Old Route 66. And while the original “Mother Road” has given way to a series of speedier superhighways, you can still catch a bustling remnant of Route 66 in the form of the iconic Lou Mitchell’s restaurant.

Located at 565 W. Jackson Boulevard, Lou Mitchell’s actually predates this famed highway. Lou Mitchell’s was founded in 1923 and Route 66 did not start rolling until 1926. The original building was on the north side of the street but the “new” Lou Mitchell’s has been around since 1949 with evidence of that era everywhere from the Lou Mitchell’s neon sign to the interior wood paneling and sleek aluminum.

Of course, it might take a while before eager diners get their foot in the door as there is often long line to get a spot at one of those 1949-issue tables. And it’s quite a diverse crew waiting in the queue as you’ll see everything from Bears jerseys and Blackhawk hats to curious tourists and Route 66 aficionados.

Besides the potential for great people watching, there are other perks to waiting in line at Lou Mitchell’s. We’re talking fresh-baked doughnut holes, a tradition that dates back to 1958 and was a nod to Mitchell’s Greek heritage where guests are welcomed to a home with a sweet treat.

In addition to being proud of his Hellenic heritage, Mitchell was also a big booster of all things Chicago. So along with the doughnut holes, he started the tradition of passing out boxes of Milk Duds because the candies were made in Chicago at the time. Sealing the Milk Duds decision was the fact that the owner was a customer and a personal friend of the gregarious Mitchell.

It’s not just the “regular joes” coming in for Mitchell’s delicious world-famous coffee. There have also been a steady stream of celebrities and dignitaries making their way to the legendary diner. In fact, Lou Mitchell’s has played host to Presidents Carter, Reagan, both Bushes, and Obama.

A paragraph on Mitchell’s website sums up the restaurant’s long tenure as it states that “enough fresh eggs have been cracked, made into omelets, cooked into skillets and sold at Lou Mitchell’s to go side-by-side more than a few times around the world.”

So if you have a hankering for fluffy omelets, fresh-baked goods and “the world’s finest coffee” served with real cream, get set to queue up at Lou Mitchell’s on Monday through Friday from 5:30 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon. The restaurant is also open on weekends from 7 am until 3 pm. The phone number is 312-939-3111.

A Lou Mitchell’s Express has also recently been opened up at the new Fashion Outlet in Rosemont. The recipes might be the same but it’s safe to say that the offshoot won’t have the history or the old-school ambiance of the original.

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