My order is usually as follows: The Dagwood (stacked with roasted and corned "beef" seitan), a side of mashed potatoes and gravy, and the epic peanut-butter-chocolate-chip-cookie-dough vegan shake. Yes, it's a gluttonous food pile, but my trips to the Chicago Diner aren't meant for light eating. (It is a diner, after all.) I started visiting the faux-meat mecca long before my move to Chicago, and it consistently offered what my hometown of Cincinnati often couldn't: a hearty, all-veg place to eat.
Chicago Diner owner Marshall "Mickey" Hornick had the same thought back in the early 80s as he sought healthier dining alternatives to combat his asthma and hypertension. When asked what gave him the idea to start a vegetarian diner, his answer was simple: "I needed someplace to eat."
Hornick opened the Boystown diner in 1983—you know, as in, "Meat free since '83"—at the site of a defunct natural food spot where he met his future partner and wife, chef Jo Kaucher, while working as a dishwasher. In a meat-obsessed city like this one, it's no surprise Hornick's diner didn't get off to a hot start.
"There's a certain nut you need to crack so you're not losing money," Hornick told me. "The banks and investors thought I was absolutely crazy not to do chicken or fish or something."
But the Chicago Diner slowly gained momentum. Hornick admits that while he initially didn't do well at events like Taste of Chicago, being a vegetarian restaurant was major publicity in and of itself—and local media outlets like Check, Please! and, yes, the Reader soon caught on.
"In the early years, people would walk out because they thought we were a greasy spoon—and we had veggie burgers and miso soup," Hornick recalls. "They looked like they had walked into another planet. But it's really, really changed. There are five vegetarian restaurants that have opened in the last few months. And vegan! We used to call ourselves dairy-free in the 80s. I can't believe how the word 'vegan' got so popular."
The Chicago Diner continues to make its mark by creating the hole-in-the-wall diner experience while approximating the taste and texture of meat (they produce their own seitan); in addition to the Dagwood, Hornick and Kaucher serve a "Radical Reuben," pesto "chicken," gyros, and country-fried "steak." Some love it and some shrug it off as too faux. Three decades later, though, Hornick's diner has transcended trendiness to reach institution status.
"Coffee, burgers, pizza, dogs—that's how people eat, you know? I mean, the key was to get the masses. If you're a meat eater, you don't miss it at the Chicago Diner."