Off the Menu

The classic American diner is dying

Illinois Times

September 10, 2015

Some people dine out when they're hungry, some  go get something to eat. I—someone who believes that American cuisine reached perfection in the open-face roast beef sandwich—am one of the latter, and when it comes to getting something eat you cannot beat the classic American diner.

The Springfield of my youth had no fewer of them than any other Illinois city its size; even drugstores of any pretension and dimestores had mini-diners to restore shoppers and lunching bus drivers. Pretty much all gone now.

This piece has been slightly edited for content. For more about Springfield diners, see here

 

A few years ago, I met an old pal from Springfield in Chicago. We grabbed a bite at the Marquette Inn, the ground-floor diner named after the magnificent 1895 Loop building of that name which housed it, a place sentimental for both of us for different reasons. It was just as I remembered it —the owner with an unlit cigar between his teeth and a waitress who qualified for landmark status. (I half-expected to see her sporting a bronze plaque instead of a name badge.) The difference was, we were practically the only people in the place.

I wasn’t surprised when it eventually closed. Recently, I read that it had been replaced by The Marq, which offers “an ever-evolving, globally inspired menu of seasonal fare” that make for “a delicious, upscale, & easily approachable experience” which includes “everything you deserve.”


Lordy.

Call them diners, call them coffee shops, places like the old Marquette are my preferred eating establishments. The model is the many “American cafés” that one used to find all over Manhattan, whose owners are Greeks, whose cooks (these days) are Latino, and whose daily specials include falafel. (Tom’s Restaurant in Seinfeld is the exemplar.) Ed Levine, a Captain Cook of the Manhattan diner scene, recently spent three months, as he puts it, eating his way through New York’s diners. Levine concluded on Serious Eats that such emporia are “the greatest bastions of civility, service, and dare I say grace available to all economic strata in this country.” Amen.

People go to diners to eat, not to dine. They certainly don’t go for ever-evolving, globally-inspired menus of seasonal fare. This offends a lot of people, but to me, the best food is food you don’t remember, because if you did remember it, you probably wouldn’t come back, and then you’d have to find a new place. Besides, if the food’s good, the wrong kind of people start showing up.

Nor, I admit, does a sane man go to coffee shops for the coffee. Starbucks founders Baldwin, Siegl and Bowker deserve a Medal of Freedom for liberating America from Bunn-O-Matic coffee. But if you can get better food and coffee elsewhere, why go at all? Well, diners offer shelter from the street. They attract regulars, who reward attention. They also harbor characters, who often were the owners or the waitresses. (A few years ago, reminiscing of the Springfield Rewind web site, Clark Mefford recalled working at the South Town Grill (or “So. Town Grill,” as the sign over the doors had it) as a busboy. The owner was Chet Kwiatt; when he wanted his wife he would yell “Kwiatt please.”) And they are usually open. My father often worked late, and frequented 24-hour places like the Fleetwood (originally a truck stop on then-Route 66 bypass) and the Georgian, which closed as a restaurant in 1986 and was razed in 2005.

In his famous 1946 essay, “The Moon Under Water,” George Orwell imagined his ideal pub. His criteria are very close to the generally accepted criteria for a good diner or coffee shop. (Orwell: “The barmaids know the customers by name and take an interest in everyone.”) Levine offered his own criteria for the ideal diner, which I paraphrase thus: You can get pancakes for lunch or a grilled cheese for breakfast if you want. You can eat at the counter or in a booth. They have cooks, not chefs. They’re like good bus service—quick service, cheap-ish, democratic. As Levine put it, “Diners offer the same warm and sassy welcome to everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status or ethnicity.” The last one I was at, a guy walked in wearing hot pants, a tight hot pink top, shaved legs and a wig; he was “Sweetie” like the rest of us.

Diners used to be ubiquitous in cities, but they’re disappearing quickly. Pop culture historians John Jakle  and Keith Sculle writing in Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age, note the number of “lunchrooms/cafes/diners” in Springfield dropped from 118 in 1935 to 21 in 1995, and they are fewer now.

The casual dining chains that largely replaced them took from the classic diners their décor and their menus but not their ambiance, mainly because the new ones were located not downtown but in the suburbanizing fringe where they became—I shudder to write this—“family restaurants.” Still the Denny’s and Howard Johnson’s and Tops Big Boys were better than nothing. “You don’t meet nice girls in coffee shops,” sings Tom Waits, but you can take one there. I did, to the Tops at 5th and South Grand in 1968, and I’ve been living with her ever since, which just goes to show you.  □

SITES

OF INTEREST

John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago

 

The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois

 

Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives

 

Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum

 

The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Chicagology

I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

[STILL A-BUILDING]

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of

solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Click  here 

to buy the book 

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