Risen from the ashes: Diner Grill reignites its eight-decade legacy


Diner Grill’s row of counter-side seats overlooking the kitchen.

By Ruby Manesis and Marian Keilman

Diners have been a celebrated part of American life since the turn of the century. Over their long history, they have been a subtle part of our built environment and provide people with connection and familiarity, where the food is as appetizing as the price tag. 

Diner Grill, located at 1635 W. Irving Park Road, has been a Chicago classic since 1937. The charming 80-year-old restaurant is a retro, family-owned greasy spoon serving up some of the most beloved and affordable American comfort foods. 

“There’s no better place in Chicago for some bacon eggs and toast than this place,” said Elizabeth Coady, one of Diner Grill’s regular customers. 

Coady not only enjoys the food, but also the familiarity of the Diner Grill.

“I’m from the East Coast where this is more of a common restaurant theme and I’m glad to finally have that experience again here,” Coady said. 

Like Coady, many people have found a sense of familiarity at the diner. They nailed that classic American diner feel that many find so comforting. 

“I feel like I’m in the 1950s, like I’m about to split a milkshake with someone, y’know what I mean,” senior Devan McMahon said. “I like that it feels vintage and cozy, and it transports me.”

Unfortunately for Coady and the many other Diner Grill customers, the restaurant had closed for several months on two separate occasions due to fires in 2007 and 2016. The latter caused severe damage, destroying the entirety of the back of the restaurant. Then, COVID-19 hit.

“It was bad. We closed for three months [because of COVID-19],” said Saul Hernandez, the diner’s current owner. “And then when we reopened and we didn’t have any business for like, a year. We were only open for the morning and part of the afternoon but not too much.” 

From chef to owner, Hernandez has worked at the Diner Grill for over twenty years. He described the efforts that were needed to revive the restaurant. 

“We started working with social media a lot and we changed part of the menu just to make everything a little better,” Hernandez said about the alterations made to the restaurant following the fire in 2016. “We opened the patios. We have a patio in the back. And yeah, I mean, it took like, good four or five months to get all the customers back.”

From the challenges they have faced, whether that be fire or pandemic, Diner Grill has learned that subtle changes are essential to accommodating the evolving taste of its customers, while simultaneously maintaining the homey and familiar aspects that keep people coming back. 

The Grill’s round-the-clock hours have seemed to attract many customers. It has become the final spot for much late-night revelry, acquiring a devoted following of many nightlife figures who swing by for a bite and a drink at the end of their shifts. 

“Around eight o’clock at night, it starts getting really busy for people coming out of work. People that want to eat before the party, I guess,” Hernandez said. “Then between one o’clock in the morning, till like five in the morning. It’s just every friend. Ambience. It’s a lot of drunk people. And it’s really busy.”

Coady pointed out the unique shifts of customers who enter the restaurant on a daily basis and recalls her experience at the diner. 

“I was just talking to the chef, and I asked him when it is busy because it slowed down, and he said around 10 in the night till 2:30,” Coady said. “The club closes in Boystown at 4 so everybody comes over here and it reminds me of my old days when I would go to breakfast after dancing.”

Following their reopening, the 24/7 classic remains a 4 AM haven.

Diner Grill rejected the sequestered seating and white table cloth atmosphere for lively chef counters that invite customers to loosen their belts and to comfortably interact with both the workers and other customers.  

“The main idea of having chosen those seats on the counter, I think they are the main attraction for the restaurant,” Hernandez said. 

The small space, consisting of a vertical line of about a dozen seats, fosters conversation and sparks relationships. 

“There were a lot of people that met in the restaurant actually,” Hernandez said. “It was last year or two years ago. I can remember one couple that met there years back. They wanted to rent the patio on the back. It was like an anniversary or something,” Hernandez said. 

McMahon also noticed the diner’s potential for fostering romance.  

“I feel like it would be perfect for a date — if two people are next to each other then you are able to easily talk,” McMahon said. 

Despite the diner’s two temporary closures, they have maintained their charming legacy by uniting the community through food and dependability. 

“I was the only cook in the shift sometimes because I used to work with a lot of older people, and they used to get drunk and just not show up,” Hernandez said. “And sometimes I was just pretty much by myself. And what I used to do is just like connect people to talk.”