Midwest Diners That Do it Right
Across the Midwest, diners are enjoying a 21st-century resurgence, complete with kale salads and gin cocktails. Which ones do it right—and how? We went on a quest to find out.
Nobody finds the Delta Diner by accident. The clientele is a mix of burger-night regulars from nearby towns and pilgrims lured by word of mouth (and the Midas touch of Guy Fieri). Even with long summer lines, the place has a mystical quality-a silver marvel lifted from its grave in New York and dropped incongruously along County-H in Wisconsin's North Woods, not far from Lake Superior.
Inside, the air smells of French fries and dark toast. The breaded perch is golden, the malts thick in their frosted cups. But the ice cream hails from Milwaukee's renowned Purple Door, and jalapeños wink cheekily from Norwegian "hot" cakes. A built-in gratuity funds a living wage for staff, noteworthy anywhere but especially in rural parts. When Todd and Nina Bucher opened the Delta in 2003, the tweaks to tradition drew some grumbles. "A lot of people wanted us to be exactly like the place down the road in Iron River, but in a shiny, very expensive building," Todd recalls.
That's because Americans take diners personally. "They get into your blood," Todd says. The genre began as horse-drawn carts that sold cheap, warm food to men working long, tiring jobs. We cherish their egalitarian spirit. We find solace in their familiarity. We don't expect them to be crucibles of culinary innovation. And yet, in the last decade, many are. They tout local produce, house sodas and Moroccan lentils. Bourbon flows as freely as coffee. A few miss the mark, but many, like the Delta, get the mix just right. They push the bounds of what a diner can be, while understanding what it must be-a low-key place where just about anyone can walk in, set down life's load and order a plate of food that tastes, perhaps unexpectedly, like home.
Chef Jonathan Brooks considered all this before opening Milktooth in Indianapolis. "Most diners, you don't even have to look at the menu and you already know what's there," he explains. "I didn't want to do that." You won't find pancakes or hash browns at Milktooth, but rather their spiritual cousins: a savory chorizo Dutch baby or latkes showered in grated fresh horseradish. Jonathan cites Indy's Historic Steer-In diner as an influence. Milktooth has the bighearted homeyness, and its menu follows the contours of tradition, except every dish is revelatory.
In Iowa City, Pullman Bar and Diner takes a more high-low approach. A few years ago, Matt Swift and Nate Kaeding toured a narrow vacancy and imagined a stylish dining car with an arched ceiling and globe lights. "We wanted the food to be equal parts familiar and unexpected," their partner Cory Kent says. That means some visitors will recall Pullman as the place they first tried bone marrow. Others will stay put with the hamburger blanketed in American cheese. And why not? It's excellent.
More than Pullman or Milktooth, Dove's Luncheonette in Chicago is full-on retro, with wood paneling, a jukebox and matchbooks by the door. The menu, though, veers south-way south-to ceviche, tamales and horchata pie. Question the mash-up, and Dove's partner and chef, Paul Kahan, counters, "We're a Mexican soul food diner. Why not be unique?" Many people still intuitively think of diners as the domain of white bread and meatloaf, but they've always mirrored our home-cooking habits. Today we buy more vegetables, crave bolder spices, prize local sourcing and applaud novelty. If diners have changed, it's because we have, too.
One thing is constant, though: Stepping into a diner should feel like an embrace. Or, if you're at Minneapolis' Tiny Diner, stepping out, to an urban garden, a patio shaded by solar panels, a crowded bike rack and a playhouse woven from branches. If you order rosé with your cornbread salad or smoked salmon Benedict, it's poured from a tap to avoid packaging waste. The ethos is decidedly 2018, but owner Kim Bartmann's green convictions sing in such harmony with this lefty neighborhood, it feels as if Tiny Diner has existed for decades, not just a few years.
Not far away, a place called Serlin's had genuine longevity but was struggling. In 2013, Eddie Wu bought and revived the 67-year-old cafe as Cook Saint Paul. His Korean riffs on classics, like pancakes topped with spicy barbecue wings, have attracted new business. But Eddie retained the newspaper boxes, modest prices and a server named Candy Lyons. Old-timers still come to sit in the window and order their two eggs over-easy-though they don't really have to ask. Candy already knows.
Sometimes, diner life grabs a person who isn't even looking for it. One day, as Molly Mitchell and Lucy Peters peered into a shuttered Detroit diner, a man drove by and asked if they wanted to rent it. "There was not one speck of graffiti. The windows were not broken. You could tell people had kept an eye on it," Molly says. Hoping to restore a little of what had been temporarily lost, the cousins created Rose's Fine Food, anchored by griddled potatoes, buckwheat flapjacks and a staff of believers who share the founders' commitment to the diner dream.
Rose's is tiny, but it thrums with life. On a gray street corner, it's a reminder that diners nourish with community as much as patty melts or pie. In fact, at most of them, human connection is built right in. A diner counter breaks down walls between front of house and back, server and served, blue collar and white. "Old folks, kids, construction workers-at some point, everyone comes into a diner," Molly says. Because everyone has a seat. Everyone belongs. And everyone leaves full.