Essay: The Comfort That Comes with Visiting Midwest Diners

Writer Elizabeth Maxwell shares how she found diners to feel like home.

When I moved thousands of miles from home, I surprisingly found comfort in diners. 

Though I regard my suburban neighborhood in San Diego to be the most familiar and comforting place I know, what it does lack is that particular type of restaurant. In my 20 years, I’ve yet to discover a diner that offers as much ease as the many I’ve found in Chicago. 

My discovery began my first year of college when my friends and I stumbled upon a diner just a 10-minute walk from Lake Shore Campus. Located at 5937 N. Broadway St., Little Corner Restaurant offered perfect solace from my new and overwhelming life of stressful classes and work.

What made this diner so inviting to me was its homey arrangement. The framed photos looked as if they were thrown onto the wall with no thought, leaving them to be crooked and unstructured. The lack of perfection in the diner’s decor made it obvious that a person had touched it and somehow made me feel at home. 

The way you’re treated at neighborhood diners makes me feel like I’m having a meal at a family home rather than an establishment. 

I’ve seen diner employees treat customers as their own friends, inviting them to sit wherever they’d like and stay as long as they want. I’ve never felt rushed in a diner or like an inconvenience as I have in other restaurants. 

Perhaps the primary form of comfort at diners is the promise of a booth. Different from typical restaurants that only offer a few, booths are a quintessential aspect of diners that are harder to come by at other restaurants.

A booth acts as a sort of cubical. Instead of being on display to the rest of the restaurant as you sit on an uncomfortable chair, you’re able to sit comfortably on a couch-like seat tucked away in the corner. 

Another of my favorite diners is Golden Apple Grill and Breakfast House, located at 2971 N. Lincoln Ave. Though the 30-minute commute it took to reach it is less than convenient, its 24/7 hours offered my friends and I the perfect outing on a late night. 

Just like at Little Corner Restaurant, I’ve always been welcomed by a kind face and the encouragement to sit anywhere. The cheerfulness of the workers is surprising to me, as I would expect people on the clock at 2 a.m. to be less than pleasant. 

This is all without pointing out the obvious — diners offer the ultimate form of comfort: food. The variety that diners offer allows you to cure your craving for any type of food — I’ve been able to eat breakfast for dinner plenty of times because of this. 

In contrast, the few diners I have uncovered in San Diego are far more inferior than those in Chicago. They’re typically chains, lacking the charm of a stand-alone restaurant.

From what I’ve seen, San Diego diners hold a newness that is far too obvious. The booths are new and shiny, the wall art lacks character and the prices are extremely reflective of inflation. 

Returning to San Diego will always mean returning to the place I feel most comfortable. But entering a diner will mean I’ve found a bit of solace that my home lacks.

Feature image by Ella Govrik / The Phoenix

Elizabeth Maxwell

Elizabeth Maxwell