Dinner with Ina at Lou Mitchell's—wait, Lou Mitchell's is open for dinner? | Bleader

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Dinner with Ina at Lou Mitchell's—wait, Lou Mitchell's is open for dinner?

Posted By on 07.07.15 at 01:00 PM

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Back to front: Ina Pinkney, eggs and potatoes.

If there's one well-known Chicago restaurant that neither I nor any food writer I can think of has ever written about, it would have to be Lou Mitchell's. Why would we need to when it's been a recommendation in every guidebook ever published about Chicago for the last 60 years? It's the quintessential Greek coffee shop, located just beyond the southwest corner of the Loop, the beginning of Route 66 for those who don't feel a bunch of stoplights in the Loop quite counts as the great American open road. For decades Lou himself kept the place's mythology alive by handing out Milk Duds and doughnut holes, and sweet-talking the tourists in line. One out-of-towner who was welcomed to Chicago by it was a woman who would make her own name in breakfast in Chicago for 30 years before retiring in 2013: Ina Pinkney of Ina's.

"This was the very first place we ate out in Chicago," Ina says, referring to her and her ex-husband Bill's arrival in Chicago from New York in 1974. "When the furniture arrived, the next Saturday morning we came down here to have breakfast. This is very different from any of the New York places. New York coffee shops, even though they were Greek owned, they were not these big, massive restaurants. We lived in Manhattan, so everything was small. Though yes, they did have the Greek key coffee cup and menu design, and if you walked into any place and said 'Is Nico here?' somebody always said yes."

"So when I came here, I couldn't believe how big it was, how packed it was, I had never seen communal tables before." (A set of continuous tables runs down one side of the restaurant, giving nearly the entire place the intimacy with strangers of the counter.) "And there was Lou, very dapper, very natty, handing out Milk Duds. We sat down and we had these omelets, and I was watching the guy—I wasn't in the food business then, but I wanted to see this. I was watching them make things, and do things. And there was a big thing of butter, and the server just took this spatula thing and put down a big blob of butter, splat. I had never seen anything like it. This was pretty amazing to me."

We wound up here because I had heard something that at one time would have counted as front page news on Chicago's restaurant scene: Lou Mitchell's, after 92 years serving breakfast and lunch, started staying open till 8 PM for dinner a few weeks ago. They had apparently eased into it under the radar—I only heard about it because someone I know lives nearby and got a flyer about it, and at that point even the restaurant's Facebook page didn't acknowledge the change. I mentioned it to Ina at an event shortly after and she was eager to check it out, though it was still evidently a well-kept secret—there were only a couple of other tables occupied while we were there, in stark contrast to the steady business it's kept up at breakfast long after Lou himself passed away in 1999.

We looked over the menu. Ina, who served fried chicken and waffles for years, zeroed in on the fried chicken. I was curious to see if they had Roumanian skirt steak, a classic cheap-eats dish now pretty much extinct in Chicago of skirt steak marinated in some combination of Italian dressing and/or soy sauce. Back in the era when Lou Mitchell's began in 1923, it was served in the cluster of Jewish restaurants near Maxwell Street ("Roumanian" being a euphemism then for "Jewish"). They didn't have it by that name, but I suspected the skirt steak and eggs would come awfully close.

Ina says she was a regular at Lou Mitchell's for years—partly because there just weren't that many breakfast places of note then. So when she went into the business herself, Lou was not pleased with her. "Remember, I ate here every week," she says. "Then I opened a bakery, and I wasn't coming as often because I was working in my bakery, on Wrightwood. Then I decided to open my restaurant. Lou heard—it was in all the papers that I was opening." William Rice, in 1991 the Tribune's primary food writer, wrote a piece that couldn't have been better designed to tick Lou off:

"Between coffee shops with Formica counters and the hotel dining rooms there was nowhere to go for breakfast," says Ina Pinkney, explaining why she started Ina's Kitchen. The best new breakfast specialty restaurant to open here since Lou Mitchell went into business a century ago is in the DePaul neighborhood . . .

"Through the grapevine I hear that Lou is not happy," she says. "I sit right up front, and he ignores me for a little bit at the end of this communal table, and I say 'Lou, you're going to have to talk to me.' And he says 'I don't know, you were a customer and now . . .' I say, 'If you come and see, you'll see we don't do the same thing. It's different from anything anybody has done. It's not a breakfast restaurant like you think a breakfast restaurant. It's fine dining, it's like a hotel dining room, it's different.' 'Oh, well, maybe I come.' I said, 'No, you have to come. I come here, you have to come there once.' So he came, and he forgave me. More or less."

Lou Mitchells fried chicken

Our food starts to arrive and keeps coming like a freight train at a crossing—first the fried chicken, followed by a massive, grapefruit-sized scoop of mashed potatoes and gravy; then the skirt steak and a skillet in which the couple of scrambled eggs I expect turns out to be the giant whipped scrambled eggs of one of Lou Mitchell's omelets, accompanied by an unadvertised order of fried potatoes. And it is exactly what you expect from a Greek diner. You don't go into these places for impressively executed, creative cuisine. You go in for solid food, in more than one sense of the term, food whose humble reliability may be the only solidity in your life if you're eating it alone at 2 AM at a Greek-owned place like the White Palace or the Hollywood Grill.

It's better than fast food for sure, but it too is the product of a machine built for cranking out big quantities of food year in and year out. The skirt steak is griddled up at a level of skill well beyond a teenage burger flipper, but the marinade has the tang of an industrially bottled dressing; the fried chicken is nicely crispy but the light application of salt and pepper bespeaks an older clientele watching its sodium and uninterested in heat. It is, in short, authentic Greek diner food, nothing like the hipster faux-diner food with kimchi and duck heart gravy you could get a few blocks away at Little Goat Diner or Au Cheval, say. Will that sell in a fast-changing and hipsterizing neighborhood? It's an open question; I expect Lou Mitchell's to still be serving breakfast the morning that the earth finally spins into the sun, but lots of us are traditionalists at breakfasts, only to demand something more adventurous at dinner. And I'm not sure if this diner food—actual, unmodernized Greek diner food—will take off as a dinner choice for the new residents who have started living in this neighborhood again.

The one thing I think they will go for is the one thing that's always been artisanal at Lou Mitchell's—the Greek toast, baked in-house (figuratively; the bakery is no longer in the basement) and accompanied by the freshly made orange marmalade . . . and a splat of butter, the thing that fascinated Ina in the first place. It arrives last, pulling up the rear of our order a few minutes later.

Toast with splat

The current owner-manager, Nicholas Thanas (yes, Nico is here), stops by our table—he recognizes Ina as somebody. She explains how she knows his mom, who's been the main face of the restaurant in recent years. I don't have to ask him why they started serving dinner—Ina does it for me. He tells us that they were putting together a franchise package for the Lou Mitchell's name about six years ago, but the recession killed that idea at the time. Instead, as he watched the buildings around them turn into lofts and condos, and when the building where they rented a management office was condoized out from under them, he decided there was a dinner market at last in the area—in marked contrast to the 70s, 80s, and 90s, when Lou Mitchell's saw so much of the West Loop decline around it. "This area used to be nothing," he explains. "The Merc left at one point, and when they moved over to a new building, that killed our business. You'd think we would have died, but this place had a name as a destination. Slowly it started to gentrify, and a lot of empty nesters moved in. When they took my corner parking lot and turned it into a condo building, I said, there's got to be a need for it. Everybody's going nuts. They say, thank God there's something around here besides Al's Beef and Potbelly's—they need real food."

Nick Thanas

"We're BYOB right now—I'll never do liquor during the day, because I don't want to lose our brand, and I don't want the menu to get too fancy. There's a couple of nice items on it, but still dinerish food, still true to what we do," he says. "I'm excited about it. I'm the only one who wants to come and work till nine at night. My mother says, 'I don't want to come in any more than I already do.'"


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