Closer Look

After dark at Clarke’s: Night at a 24-hour diner

You never know who you'll find at a diner at 4 a.m. Elizabeth Greiwe//The PHOENIX.

There aren’t any clocks in Clarke’s.

In fact, the entire diner feels like someone hit the pause button. The mauve, vinyl-covered booths are held together with duct tape that’s two shades too dark, and the fluorescent ceiling lights bathe the 24-hour restaurant in a cheap, yellow light.

It’s impossible to take a good picture in there, but drunk 20-somethings try anyway.

Everyone at Clarke’s seems like they’re on their way somewhere else. Tipsy friends stop in before or after a party. Couples bundled against the cold chat over heaping plates of eggs after a show. For a moment, they’re stuck in the late-night limbo, waiting for the server, the food or the check.

For a Friday night, the diner was full but calm. I was there with a few friends hoping to catch a glimpse of after-hours Chicago in its full, eccentric glory.

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Waiter James Cummins, 23, waits on a table.

Clarke’s sits less than a block east of the Belmont Red Line stop. You can see the diner’s huge sign with one flickering light from the station platform — there’s even a ‘50s-era woman smiling placidly on it, pin curls and all. There are three other locations in Chicago, but this one has the best dingy diner feel thanks to its off-white tile floor and lacquered wood table tops.

The first thing I noticed when walking in was a sign taped to the window that said, “We have the right to refuse service…” The next thing was a big black-and-white photo of John Lennon hanging on the wall. Our server couldn’t explain why it was there.

From our half-circle booth, we could hear shouts of laughter from the back near the kitchen. One booth of four talked about everything from Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica to women in chainmail. At almost every table, there was a smile or a laugh.

The place swelled around 2:30 a.m. when parties begin winding down and some tire of the bar scene. That’s when we met Kale Ewing, who insisted on giving all of us fake names. Mine was Samantha.

He’d been at Stanley’s, a Lincoln Park bar, with his five friends before walking into Clarke’s. It took him roughly 20 minutes — thanks in part to his near constant joking with his friend Kayla — to finally order what he called “The Full Tiff,” a chocolate chip waffle smothered in strawberries and whipped cream.

Ewing is pretty representative of the kind of person who comes into Clarke’s in the middle of the night: young and most likely drunk — although that second one is up for debate.

But Clarke’s isn’t Ewing’s usual haunt. If he stays up late, he’s watching Netflix or reading. He works at Nielsen, a market research company best known for its TV ratings.

Between taking selfies with one of his friends and cracking jokes, Ewing tried to keep up a conversation with our table. We were hoping for some nighttime wisdom.

Kale Ewing, 24, visited the diner with five of his friends after a night at the bar. Their loud joking attracted a few stares from other tables.
Kale Ewing, 24, visited the diner with five of his friends after a night at the bar. Their loud joking attracted a few stares from other tables.

“I don’t have any good advice,” Ewing said, leaning over the side of his booth. “I’m 24. I don’t know anything.”

By 3:15 a.m., the music switched from the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” kind to the “Baby Got Back” kind. The crowd thinned as the drunks called it a night.Ewing and his friends left.

Then the diner went back to a sort of stasis. Most of the wait staff lined the wall where the bar used to be, keeping an eye out for customers in need. A few others wiped down the linoleum tabletops, shuffled Cholula hot sauce from booth to booth and rinsed out the red plastic glasses that every pizzeria in Chicago also has.

The coffee was terrible — I dumped two creamers and roughly a pound of sugar into it — but the food was filling. It’s hard to complain about waffles, onion rings and Diet Coke. Fried food isn’t pretty, butit’s exactly what you need in the middle of the night. You don’t go to Clarke’s when you’re watching your figure.

At least the wafts of burnt coffee cut through the smell of onions frying in butter.

Around 4 a.m., our server, James Cummins, finally had a moment to sit down. He’s 23, tall and lanky with mousy hair. He had on the Clarke’s uniform: a black, short-sleeve button-down with the diner’s white logo on the left side, black pants and a pair of black shoes.

During his nine months working at Clarke’s, a good portion of it on the nightshift, he’s learned the key to dealing with eccentric, often intoxicated customers.

“Kill them with kindness,” Cummins said. “Be the nicest guy in the world.”

He is nice. Behind his wire-rim glasses, his eyes show an earnest eagerness. I can easily see him keeping his cool as an angry, drunk woman throws her receipt in his face. The nightshift doesn’t surprise him much any more.

Cummins poses for a picture after sitting down for a short interview around 4 a.m. He had two more hours of work left.
Cummins poses for a picture after sitting down for a short interview around 4 a.m. He had two more hours of work left.

“I saw more extravagant costumes in May than I did on Halloween,” said Cummins, recalling a man wearing 10-inch heels and a 4-foot headdress walking through the door last summer.

Clarke’s is just a rest stop for Cummins. He moved out to New Lenox, Illinois recently and is saving up money to go to Joliet Junior College for business management and marketing. He has four sisters and comes from a big family, but he said he wasn’t always as outgoing.

“If you asked me 10 years ago, I wouldn’t be sitting down talking to any of you,” Cummins said.

At 4 a.m., the music switched back to ‘90s rock with the Counting Crow’s “Mr. Jones.” Clinking glasses and silverware mixed with the low murmur of close conversation, and the night crowd dispersed at the first hint of morning.

Cummins still had two hours until he was done with his shift. He usually catches the sunrise during his 40-minute drive home.

Once I finally peeled myself off of the vinyl booth and paid for my breakfast at the front, I got the sense that the place hasn’t changed much in the 28 years it’s been open.

With its faded, peeling paint and shoddy bathrooms, it’s the kind of place that has a humble timelessness. The faces around the booths change, but Clarke’s stays at a standstill, a place to stop on your way to somewhere else.

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