By Brad Fiore
During the months Chicago eaters have kept their appetites at their own kitchen tables, the foods that have thrived are those that are easily packed into Styrofoam clamshells and knot-topped plastic bags. In the past year, gyros, pizzas, curries, and poke burritos have taken center stage. It’s only now, in the not-quite-post-pandemic, that some of us are returning to the dishes we loved back in the before-times. For some, this means indulging in the delicate constructions of seared scallops and truffle oil found in the city’s top fine dining spots. For others, it might be something as simple as french fries or a chicken sandwich. For me, it’s eggs Benedict.
The combination of loose yolk, ham, and hollandaise precariously perched atop an English muffin seems to have been devised specifically to thwart Grubhub. As the crowning jewel of America’s greasy spoon eateries, it is a dish best eaten within ten (or if you’re me, two) minutes of being set on the table, preferably with a mounding pile of fried potatoes on the side. It’s approachable, ubiquitous and delicious, making it an unavoidable choice for the menu of pHlour Diner.
The younger sibling of the well-established pHlour Bakery just a few doors down the street, this new greasy spoon venture was unveiled earlier this month in the notably un-renovated former Nookies location. While I was maybe a little disappointed to not find the same open concept design and exposed beams that gives the bakery so much character, my doubts were put to rest as soon as my butt hit one of the padded booth seats.
Floor-to-ceiling windows span two street-facing walls, giving diners a clear view view of an intersection populated by criss-crossing red line commuters, traffic coming in off Lakeshore Drive, and tired looking Subway Sandwich Artists across the street. It was here, as I checked beneath my glass of ice water to find a familiar ring of condensation, that I wondered how I had gone so long without these simple joys.
There have been many things we have learned to live without since the beginning of the pandemic, and among the least important of these is the gratitude that comes when watching a stranger refill your glass of water, or the resentment for the tray of steaming plates that passes by your table, or the thrill being chatted-up by your server just before they deliver the bill–“I heard you can see the smoke from California’s wildfires all the way to New York!” It’s true that you can find all of these in virtually any restaurant, and of course I’m aware of the fact that I’m seeing this through a pair of heavily-tinted glasses, but the beauty behind pHlour Diner, at least in my opinion, is that it makes a special effort to honor all of the little joys that come with dining out.
Everything I tried was made with care, even precision. Each piece of bread (please try the bread) was decorated with a penciled line of char running all the way around the edge of the crust. Likewise, the flaky bits on my Benedict’s English muffin. And the piece of ham on top of it, which introduced surprising smokiness that melded perfectly with the hollandaise. The pancakes were topped with sundae-like accoutrements of blueberry compote and orange mascarpone, and the hash browns were more crisp and light than they had any right to be. None of them, not even the hash, left the pattern of grease beads that is often the hallmark of such dishes. All of them came in portions made to satisfy. As I was told by my server, “We’ve got big plates and we have to fill ‘em up!”
The food is more than good, and more than well-made. For those of us who have strong and specific feelings for dining out it could almost be said that the pancakes, waffles, ham slices and poached eggs are the platonic ideals of the familiar diner classics. What I mean by this is that they live up to our memories of them, even if those memories are colored by the fact that they were formed in a time when we didn’t have to wear a cloth mask on the train, or stifle every cough we felt rising in our throats. The recipes are remarkably un-futzed-with, untrendy. There are no deconstructions, no ‘takes.’ Yes, the food is delicious. But more importantly, it was made to live up to a tradition of American dining that’s old, and big, and to many people, important.
Depending on who you are, this could be a good or a bad thing. If what you’re looking for is an adventurous culinary experience, then it might be better to look elsewhere. If you want gut-busting grease bombs, you’ll be better off at another of the city’s diners. However, if you’re looking for a place to indulge in any of your nostalgic pre-pandemic foods without feeling like you need to take a nap at 11 a. m., then it’s probably worth a visit.
Maybe much of the magic I experienced at pHlour Diner comes from waiting 15 months to eat there. Maybe you’ve been dining out for months and all of this is already old news. Or, maybe, your wait still isn’t over and the Benedict of your dreams is still out there in the future. In any case, the next time you have a chance to hit up pHlour or one of Chicago’s other greasy spoons, don’t forget to notice the small comforts, and to tip well.
Visit pHlour Diner at 1100 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and weekends 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Brad Fiore is a writer and restaurant-goer who is equally likely to be found sitting in front of an Italian beef sandwich as he is the draft of an upcoming article or short story.