Open only about two months, The Junction Diner in Forest Park seems to be a concept that appeals to families with young children…and perhaps even others.
A train-themed restaurant, the central feature is a track that runs around the counter and through the kitchen where cooks place food in baskets on flat cars for delivery to customers.
Running into owner Brad Wahl a few minutes after we arrived, I asked the obvious: "So, are you really into trains?"
"Not really," said Wahl, somewhat unexpectedly. "Our basic business plan isn't built around trains. We want to create a family-friendly restaurant where you don't have to apologize if you bring your kids. But for us the trains are not fundamental," he said, adding, provocatively, "In a few years we may have robots." Sounds awesome.
Kathryn and Joal Kjarsgaard were sitting a few stools away from us with their kids, Collin and Kate. Kathryn told us that aside from the kiddie entertainment factor at The Junction Diner, she likes "that the foods here are healthy for kids."
You can get fries and soda, of course, but Kjarsgaard appreciated that you can substitute a fruit cup for fries (though I would never do that) and both she and my wife Carolyn opted for salads (Warning: salads are too big to be delivered by train, even further reducing the fun factor of this menu offering).
I had the Burlington Bacon Burger and it was very good: the beef is fresh, never frozen, and it's hand-formed in the kitchen, which always seems to make for a tastier burger. Hamburgers that are delivered to restaurants in pre-shaped frozen pucks always seem dry and kind of rubbery; Junction Diner's burgers were moist and juicy with a lightly seared crust.
Potato chips and donuts are made-to-order and, surprisingly, you can also get beer or wine.
To keep the kiddies amused, there's a play area with a fascinating little train town, a coin-operated train ride, a classic wooden rail set and other toys.
I've written about how older people should be more accepting of kids in restaurants. Another angle on this issue is that kids are probably happier when they have their own space. Rather than making the little ones sit still and behave in a grownup restaurant, maybe it's better to take them somewhere that's clearly made for them and where they can pretty much be kids. Wahl is trying to create a place that, though he wants it to be "much more civilized than Chucky Cheese," can still be a place where kids can run around and have a good time without chastising adult stares.
The Junction Diner seemed rather crowded when we walked in, but Wahl assured us "This is nothing. At lunch during the week, it's packed."
The Junction Diner
7401 W. Madison
Forest Park, I
Note to Brad: please get your website up and running. Understand that in 2013, most people use a restaurant's website to check out a place before stopping by, and currently the site is half-completed mess. Ball dropped here.