There's a new charcoal-burning grill next to the flattop at the Diner Grill, but each time I've been by it's been cold. Perhaps it's just as well given the flammable nature of the 78-year-old Lakeview institution. Late-night louts waited nearly a year and a half for it to reopen after the Christmas Eve fire that in 2016 gutted one of the two vaulted streetcars that housed the grill, counter, and its emerald-green upholstered stools. Maybe you remember the previous fire that shut it down it in 2008.
Owners Arnold and Sheila DeMar—and ace grill men Ricardo Hernandez and Kenny Coster, who work the flattop like samurai—are nothing if not resilient.
It isn't, however, unchanged. It reopened last July—no more streetcar vibe, but an approximate squared-off rectangular unit, its white-lit beacon no longer inviting "PLAY LOTTO HERE" but instead bearing the specious slogan "HOME OF THE 'SLINGER.'"
The home of the slinger—the legendary palliative pile of hash browns, hamburgers, eggs, chili, cheese, and onions—is Saint Louis, of course, not the Diner Grill. Claiming otherwise seems like it could tempt an angry God to strike again.
If you're a crazy person you can order a slinger through GrubHub now, but despite all this progress, the Diner Grill has maintained its practical appeal. It's still there for you if at 4 AM you need to preempt a hangover with cheeseburgers and eggs. It's still there for you if you're the sort of person who gets a kick out of dick-shaped pancakes. If you like to pretend you're Shelley Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross or a wisecracking drifter from a Tom Waits song, it's still there for you.
But there are milkshakes now (watery), and chilaquiles, hobo skillets, and steaks—a full Denny's press almost. I ordered a rib eye, slapped on the sizzling flattop and angled over a mound of shredded hash browns, with cackleberries, cooked over easy, to the side. It was thin, watery, and rubbery, and tasted of the concentrated animal feeding operation it came from. But if I'd more than $11 to work with I'd have gone to Boeufhaus. Times are tough. One needs protein.
I tried the new biscuits and gravy too—a discouraging gray blanket of floury cream sausage gravy smothering eggs, sausage patties, and hash browns, very close to a Saint Louis slinger variant known as the "the Toby." The diner's new pulled pork, served atop the usual previously frozen french fries and lashed with sweet barbecue sauce, compels you to finish it even it as you envision its aftereffects.
Now, more than ever, the slinger can't be ignored. One evening I had a friend in town who'd never experienced its unique pleasures. This is a person who, as a young man, could conjure magic from a box of Hamburger Helper after the smoke of a certain plant species was inhaled. I thought he'd get it.
We'd walked briskly in a straight line across Irving Park Road from the Long Room at a very reasonable hour. I advised him that the only way to eat a slinger that is in any way of Chicago is to order it with giardiniera on top. I settled back with a bacon double cheeseburger and watched him dive in.
"All the ingredients individually are incredibly average," he said, pushing it away. "The combination is incredibly mediocre." I tried to explain that if he didn't finish the whole thing he wouldn't be awarded the commemorative certificate, signed by Kenny Coster himself, that would prove his strength and courage to his children and his children's children.
I was very satisfied with my cheeseburger—classic, uncomplicated—but I decided to help him out anyway. One very early morning some years ago, I ate a slinger and finished half of another belonging to a more feeble eater next to me at the counter. Either the slinger hasn't aged well or I haven't, but my pal was right, of course, and I pushed it away too.
But then again, we'd done it all wrong. One can't access the unique pleasures of a slinger in a sober frame of mind before 2 AM. The same goes for the Diner Grill itself, a refuge in the early hours for the uninhibited, under-the-influenced, and ill-advised. Put that coffee down. The Diner Grill is for closers only. You think I'm fucking with you? v