Road Trip to Diner Mecca

Wed. September 30, 2009 12:00 AM
by PJ Gray

Inspired by my love for homemade comfort foods, the delightful autumn weather and my fascination with diners, I decided to hit the road in search of the best diner food in the Chicagoland and surrounding areas. Take that, Guy Fieri!

My criteria for the ultimate diner? Here are the essentials: well-executed scratch cooking, a loyal following, and a unique, unpretentious personality. I suggest you take this path to experience the glories of exceptional diner foods that the Chicago area has to offer.

Start in the city…

Glenn's Diner
1820 W Montrose Avenue, Chicago, IL
(773) 506-1720

This place gets lots of hype for very good reason. Whether breakfast, lunch or dinner items, they know what they're doing in the kitchen. First, like any diner worth its salt shaker, they offer an early bird special. Bravo. (All true diners should.) This is always worth ordering and won't disappoint. Also, I implore you to try their potato pancakes as a side dish whether they come with your meal or not. Always order extra. But you are warned. After one taste, you will be willing to fight off anyone who comes near them. (Seriously, I've done it and it wasn't pretty.)
Their chefs' creativity shines in their seafood menu. Any fish selection is worth ordering. And where else would your get a tilapia coated with crushed Apple Jack cereal? I'm not kidding. The sweet/salty combination of flavors takes this dish from potentially wacky to simply clever…and quite tasty. Try it to believe it. Also, don't leave without trying their crab cakes. They are outstanding.

Head to the West Side…

The Depot American Diner
5840 W Roosevelt Road, Chicago, IL
(between 58th Ct & 59th Ave)
(773) 261-8422

I love underdog stories. Owners Robert and Annamarie Nava once had to close this gem after having financial troubles, but the diner was resuscitated by fundraising efforts from their devoted neighborhood regulars. Now that's loyalty! Of course, one bite from anything off their menu and you'll understand why they did it. I highly recommend their pot roast sandwich—juicy, savory, meaty, wicked, open-faced goodness. This is an old-school diner done right. Scratch cooking made with love. Hearty soups and sinful desserts created in-house (word to your Grand-moms). You can even enjoy old fashioned soda fountain creations at the counter. My only disappointment during my meal was wishing this place was smack dab in the middle of my neighborhood.

Migrate to the Northern Suburbs…

The Bagel
Old Orchard Center, Skokie, IL
(847) 677-0100

I know, I know. You say "deli," I say "diner." Potato-patata. The bottom line: this Gentile still thinks they have the best chopped liver around. And, although the atmosphere may appear a bit too stylish compared to more standard rough hewn diners, this place makes up in food quality and loyal patronage. I recommend noshing on their Lox Spread, a cream cheese blended with smoked salmon and onions, Don't pass up their famous Sweet & Sour Cabbage Borscht or their special recipe Smoked Whitefish Salad; and for God's sake, order a half-gallon of their Mish Mash Soup to go. You won't regret taking home this amazing concoction of chicken broth loaded with "the works"—matzo ball, kreplach, noodles, rice and kasha. Oy!

End at the State Line…Arrive at Diner Mecca

Franks Diner
508 58th Street, Kenosha, WI
(262) 657-1017

Imagine a pilgrimage where the faithful followers descend en masse to a holy place. It's kind of like that at Franks. I think of it as food church.
First and foremost, Franks offers all of the hallmarks of a quintessential American diner from its humble and honorable history and authentic, charming atmosphere to its incredible homemade food and sassy attitude. How can you not love a diner that promotes "Order What You Want. Eat What You Get!"?
There are so many reasons to eat at Franks, but my favorite reason is their signature Garbage Plate. Seriously, any true diner aficionado will worship this exceptional dish. It's an uber-delicious and fully customizable pile of savory breakfast ingredients including hash browns, eggs, meats and veggies. Although this may sound like a typical breakfast for a diner to serve, you must eat it to understand that it's so much more. And if that isn't enough of a reason, it's served with a side of thick, toasted homemade bread. This is the same extraordinary bread used for their mouth-watering French toast. You will not—I repeat— will not be disappointed with anything on their menu. I've tried and it hasn't happened yet. Their thick velvety Split Pea Soup is highly addictive—so, fair warning. To save me from gushing any further, I encourage you to comb the menu on their website.
The devotion and care of owner/operator/partners Lynn Groleau and Chris Schwartz is tangible the moment you enter Franks. The pure comfort and satisfaction you will feel from dining there will cause you to never want to return to the cruel complicated world outside. That's OK. You'll return to Franks again and again—and be welcome with open arms. And you'll see me there. I'll be the one genuflecting at the front door.