In remembrance of the old-time coffeeshop
By: Ashley Boncimino and Lorene Yue
There’s no shortage of chic brunch spots in Chicago, but downtown’s share of cheap, authentic diners is shrinking. The latest casualty: Ohio House Coffee Shop, a River North classic with more than 50 years of history. It will close at the end of April after its landlord gave it the boot.
“It’s going to be a chain coffeehouse,” says owner Cathy Roquemore, 77, though she’s not sure which. “Everywhere you look down here, you see a chain . . . and with exorbitant prices.”
Ohio House definitely is a throwback. Tucked near the entrance of an old-style motel of the same name, at LaSalle Boulevard and Ohio Street, the place bills itself as the home of the “Wild Deuces” breakfast: two eggs, two strips of bacon, two sausage links and two pancakes for $5.75. A bottomless cup of coffee is $1.50. Except for the 20-piece chicken wing plate for $13.65, no dish costs more than $8.25.
With the rise of deep-pocketed corporate chains such as Corner Bakery, owned by Atlanta’s Roark Capital Group, and St. Louis-based Panera Bread Co., independent coffee shops are finding it harder to hang on to their perches, especially as the surrounding blocks gentrify. The list of the recently deceased includes Old Timer’s Restaurant & Lounge, Cambridge House and Ashkenaz Deli.
“There is a place for diners,” says Ms. Roquemore, who began waiting tables at Ohio House 30 years ago before buying it in 2004, “but you have to find a place for the diner itself. Where is it going to go?” At the start of April, she says, her landlord, a venture managed by Jacob Kiferbaum, gave her 30 days’ notice to move out so he could bring in a higher-paying tenant. Mr. Kiferbaum, an admitted extortionist in cahoots with Gov. Rod Blagojevich fundraiser Stuart Levine, did not return calls seeking comment.
“It’s a kind of Americana, but it’s likely not economically viable,” David Stone of Chicago-based Stone Real Estate Corp. says, referring to diners. Attracted to River North’s increasing sophistication, chains can afford to pay more rent because of higher sales volumes and, often, higher prices. “The Ohio House just hung on much longer than others in its ilk.”
Other restaurant industry watchers caution against eulogizing a dining category before it has passed entirely. “I wouldn’t say it’s dying,” says Steve Zaransky, co-owner of LTHForum, a message board for Chicago foodies. “In areas where the real estate is real expensive, it is going away, but there are plenty around in the neighborhoods.”
Mr. Zaransky points to Moon’s Sandwich Shop on the Near West Side, Diner Grill in Lakeview and White Palace Grill in the South Loop as thriving examples. Even in the Loop, Artists Cafe still opens at 7 a.m. daily across from Grant Park near Congress Parkway.
There also are new places that nod to the originals. Along the West Randolph Street dining corridor, restaurants play off the old-school diner experience of bargain prices in a casual atmosphere—though probably without shouts from a waitress for Adam and Eve on a log (that’s two poached eggs and sausage).
Chef Stephanie Izard put a modern shine on the Formica-countered spots of her youth when she
opened Little Goat Diner late last year as an homage to the places she frequented growing up on the East Coast.
Servers pour a river of Joe, but here the beans come from micro-roaster Stumptown in Portland, Ore. Diners can get the pancakes for dinner or for breakfast, or crumpets with chorizo maple syrup. “There’s a little something for everyone,” Ms. Izard says, honoring the underlying concept of diners.
With more reasonably priced casual restaurants opening throughout the city, it becomes a challenge for traditional diners to draw customers, says Ellen Malloy, founder of Restaurant Intelligence Agency, a Chicago-based consulting and public relations firm. “You can’t just make great food anymore,” she says. “Your concept has to stand out.”
For Ohio House regulars, comfort food and a comfortable place were enough. Shaban Shabanov, 70, comes by almost every day for a coffee break. He calls it his second home. “When they greet you by name, it’s nice,” he says. “They’re good people.”
One customer recently wrote in a guest book that Ms. Roquemore keeps near the cash register: “I have known you since I was a little girl and you haven’t changed a bit.”
“We’ll come to wherever you cook again,” another customer wrote. “It’s not going to be the same without you, Cath.”