Chris Borrelli from the Trib goes in search of a real Chicago diner that represents Edward Hopper’s iconic Nighthawks. Do watch the accompanying video, as Borrelli’s economic and vivid narration is even better than the written piece. He doesn’t find exactly what he’s looking for, and frankly we’re not sure it exists anymore. Though, while there’s no plate glass expanse as in the painting, I’d say Chicago’s closest manifestation is the Ramova Grill.
As we once wrote for the Chicago Journal:
Greasy spoon meets greased palms. The Ramova Grill lies a few blocks north of the 11th Ward Democratic headquarters (the political birthplace of the Daley clan) in Bridgeport. It’s not hard to imagine old committeemen hunkered down in the high backed wooden booths, filching swigs of coffee and plotting patronage moves under the cover of cigar smoke and the waft of grilled hamburger air.
The decor is straight out of the 1940s: chrome-trimmed, red vinyl lunch counter stools sprout from the floor like a row of tulips. The original storage cabinets behind the counter have warped so that the drawers no longer fit flush in their wooden pockets. The refrigerator in the back room is a true icebox, with white curvy doors, thick chrome compression draw latch handles, and an inch of jagged ice lining the interior. The steam from the grill fogs the plate-glass window and hisses like a reptile. Glassware plonks on Formica, silverware clinks on porcelain, and the neon sign in the corner buzzes incessantly.
There is no printed menu, just original slate tiles mounted above the counter with chalky lettering. In the only nod to modernity, a dry-erase board has been added for listing the breakfast specials. The prices, like the décor, are a throwback. A burger and fries will set you back $2.25. The menu is focused and sparse: burgers, pork chops, liver and onions, fries. Homemade in 50 gallon batches, the chil is saucy with a sprinkling of meat, beans, and a sweet tinge of cinnamon and allspice balancing the heat. Served with a side of shredded cheese and diced onions, this concoction is more Cincinnati-style than steak Tex-Mex brew.
Every once in a while, the phone rings in the wooden phone booth that Superman could call home. This is no mere pay phone. It is the only phone in the grill. Customers phone their takeout requests on this line. In the middle of the call, a waitress might yell to confirm that they can fill an order for pork chops. The wait staff is attentive, efficient, and knows many customers by name.
The Ramova Grill is located at 3510 South Halsted St.; 773-847-9058