Food & Drink

The Best Old-School Diners in Chicago

Published On 09/20/2016 Published On 09/20/2016
old diner
Diner Grill | Sean Cooley/Thrillist
Flickr/Mikael Vejdemo Johansson

Svea

Andersonville

Tucked into a small old storefront on Clark is the charming, blue-and-gold-bedecked Svea. One of the last vestiges of the neighborhood's Swedish influence, Svea is a simple breakfast and lunch joint with a mix of classic American diner food and specialties like herring, Swedish sausages, and lingonberry compote. The prices are exactly what you want out of a simple diner, and the walls are covered with old photos of Sweden and the neighborhood. While there is plenty to recommend, the Viking breakfast is the go-to for first-timers and regulars alike.

Daley's Restaurant

Woodlawn

Some of the other places here have history, but none of them have 1892 history. And none of them have one of the best plates of chicken & waffles in the city. How about some chopped steak with those waffles instead? Salt pork and grits for breakfast? Smothered pork chops, ham hocks, peach cobbler? We could just keep listing foods, but all you need to know is there is a reason this place is not just a neighborhood staple, but a landmark.

Flickr/Eric Allix Rogers

Stella's

Lakeview

A 50-year mainstay (though it's gone through a couple names), Stella’s is a classic Chicago corner restaurant that has managed to survive every change Lakeview has seen since the Korean War. Anyone who has walked by will have caught the giant fist triumphantly gripping a fork and knife over the entrance. Hopefully they have stopped in, too. The food is a nice mix of everything you would expect and a little something extra, with everything from omelets, pancakes, and roast turkey dinners to quesadillas and fettuccine Alfredo. The window front booths are some of the best seating in the hood, and go great with a burger and milkshake.

The Palace Grill

Palace Grill

West Loop

If you don’t already love the Palace Grill when you see its beckoning neon “Sandwich Shop” sign, there isn’t much we can do for you. Take refuge from the creeping gentrification of the West Loop among the checkerboard floors, metal chairs, and a staggering amount of Blackhawks memorabilia. There is nothing complicated or pretentious about the great omelets or French toast, which is exactly what you want when you come to a place like this. Yes, your Angus steak burgers and portobello mushroom sandwiches are great, but they are not better than this.

Flickr/ShellyS

Shilas

Old Irving

Cheap, tasty, filling, friendly: that is what you are looking for in a diner. Ambiance is optional, although a lack of it almost counts anyway. Shilas has all those things in spades. This Old Irving neighborhood favorite is a wonderful reminder of everything that is right with the world. The skillets are big and flavorful, the wait staff will smile and keep your coffee warm. You will eat pancakes. You will pay less than $10 (or barely more). What more could you possibly want?

Flickr/stu_spivack

City Cafe

Avondale

Nondescript on the outside, but lively and welcoming on the inside, City Cafe is one of the best breakfast spots on the West Side. The owner is active and friendly, and the whole staff keeps it moving despite the frequently crowded morning rush. The pancakes are pretty fantastic, but the menu is also decked out with some Mexican breakfast specialties to give your first meal of the day a little more flavor. We all love our sausage or bacon with breakfast, but if you haven’t tried some huevos con chorizo, you still have a lot to learn. All that plus prices that are almost as welcoming as the atmosphere.

Flickr/Jamie Manley

Valois

Hyde Park

This one is cheating a bit, yes. It is not a diner in the classic sense, mostly because of the counter-service style. But few places in Chicago are more old-school or more in line with what you want out of a good diner: nothing fancy, just good food in a friendly neighborhood environment. Valois also has the distinction of being a favorite for Chicago royalty; Harold Washington often ate here multiple times per day, and the spot is also a favorite of Hyde Park local Barack Obama. It also caters to students, the elderly, professors, and whoever else just wants a good plate of steak and eggs.

Pittsfield Cafe

Pittsfield Cafe

Loop

The beautiful confines of the historic Pittsfield Building do not hurt this place one bit. While there is a classic diner setup in the storefront, there's also “patio” seating out in the lobby, which provides some pretty wonderful indoor views. It’s also great to have a place in this section of the Loop that is cozy and affordable, without either the tourist hubbub or trendy affectations. You get to sit at a counter and eat corned beef hash. It's sad that can be such a hard thing to do these days, which is why we need reminders of those simple joys via the Pittsfield Cafe.

Alexander's Restaurant

Edgewater

All the classics are here in this no-frills Edgewater establishment. It’s not much to look at, which is catnip for people who know their diners. Experts will not be disappointed. The portions are big, the coffee keeps flowing, and you can get a half-pound burger with soup and fries for eight bucks. If every corner had a place like Alexander’s, this would be a better world.

Sean Cooley/Thrillist

Diner Grill

Lakeview

There are only booths in this breakfast and burger counter spot on Irving Park, which only adds to the experience of inhaling an omelet at 2am. Built in an old rail car back in the '30s, the Diner Grill is open all day, but it is best known as a late-night flashpoint for the drunk and hungry of Chicago. Two particular menu items carry a special reputation: the “Dick Burger,” named after former Alinea employee Richard Richardson, and an unholy (in the best way possible) mound of food called "The Slinger," which is hash browns, grilled onions, two grilled burger patties, two over-easy eggs, and cheese, topped with chili. We will just leave it at that.

Yellow Rose Cafe

Jefferson Park

I am a sucker for corned beef hash -- it's impossible to resist the siren's salty, fatty song leading you to the quintessential diner food. Not everyone in Chicago does it, which is fine, but Yellow Rose does it and does it well, with big chunks of meat instead of that thin mush that some places try to masquerade instead. Way up in the outer reaches of Elston lies the Yellow Rose Cafe, an absolute gem of a diner worth whatever it takes you to get there. Even if you don’t like corned beef, it does just about everything right, including another signature dish, stuffed French toast.

Flickr/stu_spivack

Frances' Deli

Lincoln Park

A vintage Lincoln Park holdout that has been around since 1938, Frances’ is one of the few Jewish restaurants still operating in Chicago. Although the deli name may throw some off, Frances is a full-service sit-down with a wide range of breakfast and sandwich options. The most important things to look for on the menu are the Jewish comforts like corned beef and an excellent matzo ball soup. For true Jewish deli devotees, it also has Dr. Brown soda. It’s one of the few places left in Lincoln Park that can make you forget it is 2016.

Parkview Restaurant Grill

Pilsen

Lord bless the Mexican diner. It is a marriage made in heaven, with the spicy bold flavors of our southern neighbor going perfectly with a plate of eggs or stuffed in an omelet. Parkview is a tiny little counter spot in the heart of Pilsen, and it has a tiny little menu, but don’t let that stop you. The Spanish omelet is heaven, and the chilaquiles are crunchy and piled high. And if you are feeling up to it, don’t let anyone tell you not start your day with coffee and a few tacos.

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1. Svea 5236 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60640 (Andersonville)

Svea is a cozy, sun-lit cafe that manages to pop among all of the storefronts on Clark St thanks to its blue and gold exterior, and the fact that it's one of the last vestiges of the neighborhood's Swedish influence. The simple breakfast and lunch joint offers a mix of classic American diner food and Scandinavian specialties like herring, Swedish sausages, and lingonberry compote. The prices are cheap and the walls are covered with old photos of Sweden and the neighborhood. The hands-down must-try is the Viking breakfast: two eggs, potatoes, two Swedish pancakes, lingon berries, falukorv, toast, and unlimited coffee refills.

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2. Daley's Restaurant 809 E 63rd St, Chicago, IL 60637 (Woodlawn)

This unassuming South Side institution was opened by a young Irish iron worker as a "temporary" worker’s diner to feed his fellow construction workers who were building one of Chicago’s first elevated subway lines. And besides the original structure being totally rebuilt in 1937, not much has changed over a century later.

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3. Stella's Diner 3042 N Broadway St, Chicago, IL 60657 (Lakeview)

Stella’s has been a Lakeview mainstay since the '60s (even if it did go through a couple name changes), offering comforting diner food inside a colorful, cozy space. A reliable corner spot, it's hard to miss, thanks to its signature giant fist triumphantly gripping a fork and knife over the entrance. You'll be doing the same once you get a crack at the tasty menu, featuring everything from omelets and pancakes to roast turkey dinners and fettuccine Alfredo. Make it a real throwback and sit in a window booth with a burger and shake.

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4. Palace Grill 1408 W Madison St, Chicago, IL 60607 (West Loop)

Located on west Madison since the 1930s, this is a standard Greek joint for lunch and dinner fare, but a way-beyond-standard Greek joint when it comes to breakfast items. There's nothing quite like watching the grill man carefully sauté the ingredients for your omelet before cracking the eggs onto the griddle. The details matter. 6am to 2am.

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5. Shilas Restaurant 3938 N Cicero Ave, Chicago, IL 60641 (Irving Park)

Shilas is everything you want in an old-school, no-frills diner: cheap, tasty, filling, and friendly. The interior looks like an outdated dining room, but we'll give it points for using white tablecloths -- plus, who needs ambiance when this Old Irving neighborhood favorite has all your favorite diner classics, including flavorful skillets, scrumptious pancakes, and a smiley staff that always keeps your coffee warm. Not to mention, the prices are low enough to make you forget the drab decor entirely.

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6. City Cafe 3234 N Pulaski Rd, Chicago, IL 60641 (Avondale)

City Cafe is a breakfast hotspot, but despite the always-crowded morning rush, the owner and staff at this lively, welcoming joint are always friendly and efficient. Unlike the nondescript exterior, what you'll find on the inside here will hold your attention: fluffy pancakes, French toast, and Belgian waffles, plus some standout Mexican breakfast specialties to kick your first meal of the day up a notch. Add a little flavor to your morning with the huevos con chorizo: three eggs scrambled with chorizo, tomatoes, and onions, and served with rice, beans, and cheese.

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7. Valois 1518 E 53rd St, Chicago, IL 60615 (Hyde Park)

This cafeteria-style diner has been around since 1921 and is a favorite of Hyde Park’s most famous resident, President Obama. Valois serves quintessential greasy spoon American food all day long, but breakfast is the highlight. The menu includes a list of Obama's favorites, and Favorite #1 (NY steak & eggs) comes highly recommended. The counter-service spot is cheap but cash-only.

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8. Pittsfield Cafe 55 E Washington St, Chicago, IL 60602 (Loop)

The historic Pittsfield Building is home to this classic breakfast-and-lunch diner, which may not be as grand or beautiful as the building itself, but offers all your comforting favorites like omelets, skillets, pancakes, and burgers without the trendy, touristy feel typical of the neighborhood. There's “patio” seating out in the lobby, too, which offers lovely views of the building's swanky architecture. Our recommendation, though? Sit inside at the counter over some corned beef hash for the true diner effect.

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9. Alexander's 6158 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60660 (Edgewater)

Alexander's is a classic corner diner with beige cushioned booths and stools that are as comfy as the menu full of omelets, pancakes, french toast, sandwiches, and all your favorite no-hassle plates. Located in Edgewater, the space isn't exactly eye-catching (other than plant life in the windows, nearly every inch is wooden or, well, beige), but the portions certainly are: the coffee never stops flowing, and you can get a combo platter with a half-pound burger, soup, and fries. It doesn't get better than that.

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10. Diner Grill 1635 W Irving Park Rd, Chicago, IL 60613-2526 (Lakeview)

Slinging diner-style fare in Lakeview, The Diner Grill features 'merican grub staples like burgers and breakfast.

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11. Yellow Rose Cafe 5640 N Elston Ave, Chicago, IL 60646 (Jefferson Park)

It's well worth trekking to the outer reaches of Elston for a comforting meal at Yellow Rose Cafe, an absolute gem of a diner, so don't be fooled by its off-putting, dingy exterior. Inside, you'll find a menu of classics, including omelets, pancakes, burgers, club sandwiches, and some Mexican-inspired plates like huevos rancheros. The dish to single out, though, is the French toast stuffed with cream cheese with strawberry. That sweet and tangy treat is why you're making the journey. Remember to bring cash with you.

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12. Frances' Deli 2552 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60614 (Lincoln Park)

You might expect this vintage deli-diner (which started as a steam table deli in 1938) to serve all classic, old-style eats. But you would expect wrong. Somewhere along the way somebody went crazy with the patty melt idea, and the massive, nap-inducing Fatty Melt holds the patty, onion, and cheese between two full grilled cheese sandwiches -- one with tomato, one with bacon.

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13. Parkview Restaurant Grill 2000 W 19th St, Chicago, IL 60608 (Pilsen)

The bold and spicy flavors from south-of-the-border pair deliciously with diner food at this hidden gem with just a few counter seats. Tucked inside a house full of plants and Mexican knick-knacks in the heart of Pilsen, this is a spot where you can chow down on a generous portion of chilaquiles with a side of pancakes, a heavenly Spanish omelet, and -- because no one can stop you from having them first thing in the morning -- tacos. Note: it's cash only, but you won't need much.