CHICAGO — Mickey Hornick likes to joke that he and his wife, chef Jo Kaucher, opened a vegetarian restaurant in meat-loving Chicago because he needed someplace to eat. For the past three decades, the Chicago Diner has stood as a haven for the city’s vegetarians, serving traditional diner fare re-imagined as vegetarian and vegan. “It’s an icon,” Kaucher says. “Mickey and I are still kinda surprised.”
But, as the original location in Boystown celebrates its 30th anniversary and a second restaurant builds a foothold in the hipster-heavy Logan Square neighborhood, the Chicago Diner is finding that it’s no longer the only option in town. Vegetarian food has become easier to find in Chicago, and Hornick knows he’s facing new challenges. “In the early days they made fun of us,” he says. “Now they copy us.”
In those early days, the Chicago Diner did a little copying of its own. The Boystown location borrows heavily from the 1950s, with red cafe tables, cozy booths, and beehive salt and pepper shakers. The new Logan Square location is cleaner and brighter and plays on modern sustainability trends. Doors have been recycled from the Chicago Public Schools, tabletops recovered from a barn, the bar top created from repurposed wood flooring.
The two locations serve matching menus, and their not-so-secret mission is easy to spot: “wingz,” “chickun,” and “bacun” are all made from seitan, a gluten-based meat substitute. Omelets, shakes, and stir fries are made with tofu. The menu is filled with surprises, from the veggie bacon topped Dagwood Classic sandwich to a pierogi quesadilla stuffed with sauerkraut and mashed potato. Kaucher says her team’s proficiency with meat analogues, as she likes to call them, is a secret to the diners’ success. “We slice it. We dice it. We grind it,” she says. But, it’s the different marinades that make the gyros, veggie burgers, and famous Reuben sandwiches taste good.
Radical Reuben, made with thinly sliced seitan piled high on marbled rye and topped with sauerkraut and vegan Thousand Island, might be the Chicago Diner’s most enduring favorite. The kitchen marinates the seitan in fresh beet juice to give it the corned beef color. When the diner opened in 1983, customers were given the option to substitute non-dairy cheese for the real thing. Now, as vegan fare has become popular, dairy cheese is available only on request.
No meal would be complete without a sampling of the famous desserts, vegan cookies, cheesecakes, and muffins, which are also available at more than 30 Whole Foods Markets in the Midwest. Hornick says tofu cheesecake was a difficult sell at first, but he found the solution in a little rebranding. “When you call it JoJo’s cheesecake or cheezecake with a ‘z,’ it’s really delicious.”
No room for cheezecake? Perhaps you’d prefer vegan ice cream in a creamy shake in flavors like cookie-dough peanut butter, lucky leprechaun mint, and vanilla chai. Kaucher says the shakes “fill in the cracks” in diners’ already full stomachs.
Last December, Kaucher released her second book, “The New Chicago Diner Cookbook: Meat-Free Recipes From America’s Veggie Diner.” Many recipes come from three decades of trial and error, as Kaucher experimented to bring customers the comfort foods they remembered from their meat-eating days. She gives credit to fellow chef Kat Barry and the Chicago Diner crew. “We’ve had so many people over the years that have come and gone and they’ve left a soup recipe behind, or a sauce, or a burger,” Kaucher says.
Kaucher and Hornick have turned the day to day diner operations over to their nephew, Michael Hornick. “My wife doesn’t want to work 70 hours a week anymore,” Mickey Hornick says. “I don’t understand it.” When he does spend time in the restaurant, Hornick proves that he’s still a rebel at heart. If the staff plays music he doesn’t like, he makes them change it — to the Dead Kennedys.
The Chicago Diner, 3411 N. Halsted St., Boystown Chicago, 773-935-6696; and 2333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Logan Square, Chicago, 773-252-3211, or go to www.veggiediner.com.