Right before we closed on our apartment, I watched a sweet little video about the dying (extinct?) art of neon sign making in New York City. Which is why, shortly after moving into our new Chicago apartment, I couldn't help but noticing the classic neon signs that seemed to be everywhere in this town. There are at least five within a short radius of our home, and one of my favorites is the neon flower sign on LaSalle Flowers, which sticks out at a funny catty-corner angle to the street. The flower shop sits not far from an original Howard Johnsons, the kind with the sweet peaked roofs, which is itself home to the Cafe Luna. The Cafe Luna is exactly what I want a diner to be: a no frills place with endless coffee refills, eggs prepared a thousand ways, pancake combo platters, and a great grilled cheese.
Given its proximity to our home, Paul and I spend many Sunday mornings at the Cafe Luna, where our conversation often circles back to the things we love about Chicago. You see, those things like the neon signs and the diners symbolize something that cities like New York and Washington DC have managed to price themselves out of. In Manhattan or D.C. you would be hard-pressed to find a diner that doesn't charge $15 for pancakes and offer an array of cocktails, an ironic theme, and expect you to vacate your table as soon as you have finished eating. And, in those cities, the neon signs are gone because corporations and businesses have bought up the majority of the real estate, and no one bothers to fix neon anymore. Which is why the LaSalle flower sign always makes me smile.
Thus, we were very sad to hear a few months ago that the Howard Johnsons has been sold to a real estate developer to be demolished. The Cafe Luna can stay open for another year, until the demolition happens, though the owner's son recently told me he wasn't sure they would have enough business now that the hotel has closed.
I want to be clear that there was nothing write-home worthy about the cafe, it's not a gastropub, nor a Shopsin's, it's just a small family-run place where I can walk in and get coffee and waffles, which is exactly as it should be. Cities need places like the Luna Cafe, where a cabbie can stop and get a omelet to go, or someone hard up for cash can come in and count out their exact change next to an (admittedly more well off) local home owner like myself.
I've been thinking a lot about why I'm drawn to places like this. Many of my friends would probably tell you, not unjustifiably, that I'm a food snob, and I've been known to be a harsh critic of restaurants on occasion. So what makes me love a place that has no issue with putting whipped cream out of can onto its pancakes? Diners and breakfast cafes are a huge part of the American experience to me, not just the food culture but the culture-culture. A diner is in many ways like the first hamsani (local hummus place) I wandered into as a twenty-year-old in Beirut, alone, where I sat and had a meal of hummus and chatted with locals and where my eyes were opened to a whole culture for the first time. I had spent three years studying Middle Eastern studies, but it wasn't until I sat in that cafe and talked to people that I really got it.
These places are also places where people of all social strata not only cross paths, but might actually sit and eat together in some tangential way. And in our society these days, I fear there aren't many places where that happens often anymore.
*** In other news, our move to Cairo is impending shortly, where I hope to find my local koshari place (and whatever the Cairene equivalent of hamsani/ful vendor there is). If you readers have suggestions please do send them this way. Also, though it would probably be most appropriate to follow this post by a recipe for pancakes, the truth is I buy all my pancakes at diners, and so instead you get this recipe which I make every once in a while for a twist on rice krispie treats. They are guaranteed to disappear from your office in under 10 minutes. ***
Nutty Chocolate Crispy Treats
This recipe was inspired by something I found online, deep in the internets, when I was trying to use up a bunch of things in our pantry like agave and coconut oil. You can also try topping the treats with a schmearing of melted chocolate and sea salt.
6 cups rice crisp cereal
1 cup agave syrup
1/3 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup nutella
1/2 cup almond butter, peanut butter, or soynut butter
1/3 cup chocolate chips or chopped chocolate
3 tablespoons coconut oil or butter
2 pinches (about 1/2 teaspoon) sea salt
1. Measure out your cereal and have it at the ready. Line a 9x12 inch pan with parchment paper.
2. Get out a large deep pot (a small stock pot works nicely). Place the agave and maple syrup in the pot and bring the mixture to a roiling boil. Watch the mixture so it doesn't boil over, but luckily you're using a deep pot! Let the mixture boil for one minute. Turn off the heat and immediately stir in the nutella, nut butter, chocolate, oil, and salt. Stir well to combine. Fold in the rice crisp cereal, working quickly to mix everything together.
3. Spread the mixture into the prepared pan and press down using a nonstick spatula or damp fingers. Let the treats rest for at least 3 hours before slicing. Cut into bars using a knife or sharp-edged spatula.