Everyone knows The Berghoff is Chicagos oldest restaurant, right? It opened in 1898 at the corner of State & Adams then moved a little west to its present location about twenty years later. Its still family-run, with the fourth generation just taking the helm.
Daleys Restaurant, in business since 1892 at the busy intersection of 63rd and Cottage Grove, is routinely ignored perhaps because of its unfashionable location. Thats a shame because this neighborhood institution, in addition to being old, serves some pretty fine meals at remarkably low prices. The menu is classic luncheonette with some Southern twists, from patty melts to ham hocks. Nothing remotely trendy and much of the food is prepared from scratch. Its a large space with a counter in the middle and booths at the sides. A takeout counter is located in back next to the partially open kitchen. Its fun to watch them cook, especially when its busy; these guys are real pros. The room, probably remodeled in the 1960s, is large and comfortable but certainly not fancy. Plants, ceiling fans, and interesting photographs on the walls provide some atmosphere. Customers are a cross section of the neighborhood and many probably have been coming to Daleys for years. Service is friendly and professional (many of the waitresses likely measure their tenure by the decade) but the restaurant is often very busy so its best not to expect perfection.
My first visit was on a Friday when many of the specials are seafood so catfish seemed like a good choice. I began with a salad with house dressing, a large bowl of fresh iceberg, a big slice of sweet onion, and some so-so tomatoes. The homemade creamy dressing had a good punch of garlic and vinegar and was excellent (a choice of homemade soups is also available). Catfish was a large beast with a very crisp cornmeal coating accompanied by homemade tartar sauce. For my two sides I chose mac n cheese and green beans. The mac was quite good and would have been even better had they given me a little more of that top crust. Beans clearly came from a can but were nicely spiced and supplemented with chunks of potato. Two warm homemade corn muffins also came along. Strawberry shortcake turned out to be a strawberry layer cake, unfortunately not made in house but not too bad. The best $7.50 Ive spent in a long time I thought as I waddled out to catch the El.
Ive been back a number of times and have nearly always been quite happy although not all of the dishes measure up to my first meal. I still enjoy that iceberg salad and its garlicky dressing (warning: it can vary from day to day and is always applied with a heavy hand). Soups are always made in house, usually very good, and served in a generous portion. Main dishes vary but catfish and salmon croquettes are among my favorites. I probably wouldnt order beef stew or beef ribs again (not awful but theres better stuff). Stay away from those pork cutlets as my waitress tried to warn me: "I never tried them. But some people eat them." Most of the sides are very good. Black-eyed peas range from excellent to extraordinary (seasonings vary) and the butter beans are standouts too. Mashed potatoes are real. Greens are decent but not among the citys best. For dessert the peach cobbler may be the way to go but I wish it wasnt so sweet. They have always been out of rice pudding but I look forward to trying it. Most of the cakes and pies are forgettable.
They serve a range of sandwiches but Ive barely scratched the surface. The patty melt is exemplary, a hand-formed burger with excellent grilled onions and lots of gooey American cheese on grilled rye bread. Im not sure Ive had a better rendition. The accompanying fries are nothing special but the tiny portion of cole slaw is first rate. Other sandwiches include a fiesta burger, butt steak, BBQ beef, pork chop on toast, corned beef, open face sirloin with mashed potatoes, variations on fried egg, BLT, fried ham, and a variety of club sandwiches.
Breakfast is served all day and pancakes are a specialty. The standard order is a stack of three big ones, thick and good. I think these might be true sourdough pancakes and need to try them again soon to see if theyre as good as I think. An extra charge gets you bacon, sausage, ham, or hot links. Ham was nicely grilled, good, not great. Plenty of egg dishes are available but no brains & eggs, though you can get salt pork.
Finally a few comments on Daleys history. As far as I can tell not much has been written about Daleys and they keep a very low profile on the internet (but see later). Im still a bit confused about how old the place is. The sign hanging outside clearly reads "Since 1918" but a note on the menu just as clearly says "Proudly serving Woodlawn since 1892" and aprons the waitresses wear say "In business over 106 years." Every time Im there I try to ask someone how old Daleys really is. Answers range from "Real old" to "Definitely 1892." Nobody has explained the 1918 sign but Im told the restaurant is still run by the Daley family, now the fourth generation. As far as I can tell theres no relation to you-know-who but there is an old election poster of Daley da First hanging on the wall. A while back Zim cited a website that mentions Daleys (they say its been around since 1896) and a couple other historic Soul Food restaurants in Chicago. The URL has since changed and the current link is below. Take a while to explore the North by South website if you havent already.
Regardless of Daleys true age, its a great old restaurant. Theres a reason places like this stay around for so long.
"Proudly serving Woodlawn since 1892"
809 E 63rd St (at Cottage Grove, steps from the Green Line)
Open every day from 5am to 9pm (but things seem to wind down around 8pm)