2333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Chicago, IL 60647
3411 N. Halsted St. Chicago, IL 60657
QISA (4, 4, 4, 3.5), $9-13, Vegetarian
The Chicago Diner (“Meat free since ‘83”) describes itself as providing Vegetarian Comfort Food. I disagree. The Chicago Diner provides THE Vegetarian Comfort Food. I simply know of no place in the country that does this any better. The Diner bridges the gulf between the id and the ego, marrying meatless, local, seasonal ingredients with dishes that are pure decadence. Or at least seem that way.
Take their Special Recipe seitan wings with either barbecue or spicy Buffalo sauce. I absolutely love these things. After a big gut-busting meal in the restaurant, I have been known get a take-out order to finish off much, much later in my hotel room…and then finish them off in the car on the way to the room. Apparently I have no self-control. Or pride.
Or how about their Spicy Crispy Chik’n, a satisfyingly crunchy and chewy sandwich made from breaded chicken-flavored seitan, ranch dressing, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, and onion on a hearty whole-wheat bun.
Or perhaps you’re more in the mood for a Cajun Black Bean Burger, a spicy black bean patty with sautéed onions, mushrooms, spinach, tomato, fried jalapenos, vegan cheese, and Creole mustard spilling out onto your hands, which is all fine because no one is judging you but yourself. If you were there on a date, your chances of intimacy were over the moment your dinner consisted of the words "beans," "spicy," and "onions". Unless your date ordered those words as well, in which case, you should marry her immediately.
And I have not yet mentioned the dessert menu of cakes, sundaes, and award-winning shakes, all of which, of course, are vegetarian. And all of which, I choose to believe with absolutely no proof whatsoever, are healthy and life-prolonging.
Although much of the menu definitely follows the Comfort and Analog modes of vegetarian dining, not everything is fried or seitan-based. The quinoa chili is a hearty mix of beans, corn, and quinoa, creating a wonderful melange of flavor and texture. The chili is a healthy stew of protein, fiber, and vitamins that still somehow feels decadent. Of course, the fact that it is served with jalapeno corn fritters doesn’t hurt either.
Despite the heaps of awards, over 30 years of history, and an in-house store selling everything from t-shirts to cookbooks, the restaurant still has a modest, unassuming appeal. This is no four star restaurant with a snooty maître ‘d informing you that, strange, he doesn’t see your name on the list, perhaps you would like to wait at the bar. Rather, this is a hippie hangout and a family diner all in one. This is wooden benches and scratched tables and local art on the walls. This is comfort food.
Granted, this is also good service and cute, friendly waitresses, which, I am none-to-proud to say probably raises the place up even more in my esteem. At my last visit, Isa, an attractive young blue-haired, cappuccino-skinned lady earned her generous tip by drawing four stars on the top of my bill and writing “Love and” in front of the printed “Thank You” on my bill. I can’t quite remember, but that may have been the day I put in the extra order of take-out barbecue seitan wings.
No self-control. No self-control or pride at all.