The first food post I ever wrote was about Al’s Grill on Madison. This was when Al’s was still located on the south side of the street, in a sliver of a place, with steamy windows and menu items hand-written on sheets of paper hanging over the sizzling griddle.
Now, Al’s is located on the other side of the street, and it’s much larger…and cleaner. But something’s missing.
There’s a lot to love in the friendly funk of the small American diner that used to be typified by Al’s and, until recently, Louie’s Grill, further down Madison in Forest Park, which has recently undergone a major expansion and renovation.
“I liked it the way it was,” admitted Louis’ wife, Ellen Politis, “but we had an opportunity to enlarge the space, and we had to take it.”
From a business perspective, she’s clearly right. Louie’s has expanded from 50 seats to 88. When we were there last Saturday morning, the place had a full waiting area with guys outside on cell phones calling their breakfast dates to let them know there was a long wait. It was packed. Politis told me they had to move the tables and chairs out of the center of the old dining space to make room for all the people milling about waiting for a seat.
The new place is well designed, light and airy, with tables neatly spaced and uniformed servers moving food efficiently through the crowd.
I mentioned to Ellen that my friend, Oak Parker and thelocalbeet.com editor Rob Gardner, refers to her husband as “Louis the Octopus” because the eponymous cook was able to move so fast at the griddle, it seemed he had eight arms.
“He isn’t moving that fast anymore,” laughed Ellen.
The great American diner is, of course, a vanishing restaurant type. When I was a kid, a diner like Louie’s was the kind of place a workingman would go for breakfast and lunch (such places rarely stay open for dinner). In those days, the word “brunch” was practically unknown, McDonald’s wasn’t serving breakfast yet, and the humble diner was the place people went for the closest approximation to homemade you could get in a commercial establishment.
Louie’s isn’t what it used to be, but whatever it may have lost in grungy charm, it seems to have gained in customers, and it’s kind of wonderful that a small independent restaurant like Louis’ can even exist in a world that’s increasingly dominated by personality-free corporate feeding stations.
We had the Greek omelet (feta, tomatoes and onions) with hash browns, and it was just fine. Not the kind of breakfast that’s going to get even Bib Gourmet recognition, of course, but just the sort of simple, satisfyingly predictable diner fare that’s been served in diners since the beginning of the last century.