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Nighthawks at the Diner – Al’s Grill

David Hammond | Feb 15, 200212:33 AM

Okay, so you’ve been living up to your reputation as Elmwood Park’s premier bon vivant cum boulevardier, and you’ve closed down Horan’s, then Healy’s, and finally Doc Ryan’s, and for a while now you’ve been sitting with some staggering, swaggering sidekicks in front of the Shell station at Harlem and Madison, watching the morning dew coalesce as diamonds on the windshields of cars parked out back. Your eye is caught by a golden shimmer in the distance. At first you figure it’s just that old bloodshot moon staring you down from a burgundy sky…but no, it’s a hamburger. It’s glowing. It’s the over-the-door sign at Al’s Grill, a beacon in the predawn darkness, open at 5:00 AM, and ready to take your order, sir.

Using parking meters as walking sticks, you wend your way east on Madison, toward the light, which is the warmest thing you’ve seen all night (warmer even than some of those beers you’ve had). Inside, the staff of short order chefs is at the ready. The waitress, though she may not have a full mouth of teeth, has a heart that’s as full of goodness as one of Al’s patty melts, says hi, pushing a stray grey curl out of her eye (along with the shadow of a melancholy tear).

Stepping into the fry-humid warmth, you hear a rising hungry man’s halleluiah chorus, led by gypsy hacks and insomniacs, overdriven and underpaid, a day late and a dollar short, and they’re singing out, Eggs and Sausage, Side of Toast, Coffee and a Roll, Hash Browns Over Easy, Chili in a Bowl, Burgers, Fries, and What Type of Pies…?

Behind the chromium counter (with faux marble sides, oh yeah) a sign with Betty Boop’s image, suggesting, “Try the Julienne Salad” – you see, Betty is a classy lady, and she goes for the French cuisine. Of course, Al’s offers the full quadrivium of diner salads, including also dinner, chef and Greek.

Another sign assures, “I’ll be back in a flash…with your hash.” There’s a number of other corned beef preparations, and the menu offers no surprises. It’s just what you’d expect…and if you were born with a greasy spoon in your mouth, it’s just what you want. Eggs any way, a line-up of melts and clubs, liver with onions or bacon, veal cutlets, bologna and cotto salami sandwiches, steaks and an obligatory fish (perch) – everything under $5.50 and most under $4.50, so you can afford to want to tip, generously, and you should.

The sink in the back, no door, is getting some heavy use as regulars wash the night off their hands and prepare to tuck in. There’s a stack of complementary Sun-Times on the backwall, in case you don’t feel like chatting it up with your fellow stool sitters.

You go with the patty melt (of course!) and take it “delux” with the fries and pickles. Just what you wanted.

Outside, it’s still dark. No need to check the Sun-Times for the weather report: High tonight, low tomorrow, and precipitation is expected.

Al’s Diner
1053 W. Madison
Oak Park, IL 60302

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