General

Where Uncle Lou’s meets the Mother Road

This weekend’s Wisch List newspaper column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.)

The WISCH LIST

By Dave Wischnowsky

Like Jack Kerouac, I’ve always had a thing for road trips.

Growing up, my family would pile into our station wagon every summer and make the 1,000-mile haul from Bourbonnais to Colorado to visit family. When I was in my 20s, I drove more than some truckers while covering games as a sports writer. And two years ago, I spent four days cruising around 900 miles of Montana’s incredible “Big Sky Country.”

If some people consider themselves “foodies,” then I suppose I’m something of a “roadie” – minus the touring band and heavy lifting. And in my logbook, nothing says summer quite like “road trip.”

Meanwhile, in Illinois, nothing says “road trip” quite like Route 66. And in Chicago, nothing says “Route 66” quite like Lou Mitchell’s, the legendary diner where that legendary highway actually begins.

This past Monday, with a hankering for lunch and a history lesson, I visited the West Loop institution where three presidents (Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter) and countless others had dined before me.

Founded in 1923 at 565 W. Jackson St. just west of Union Station, the diner quickly gained a following with famished travelers pouring out of trains and energized adventurers pouring onto Route 66, which stretched westward 2,448 miles from Lou’s front door.

It wasn’t until 1958, however, that “Uncle Lou” Mitchell laid the groundwork for his restaurant’s iconic status when he began handing out free donut holes and boxes of milk duds when customers walked inside. That tradition stands to this day at Lou’s, where the entrance now reads: “Through these doors walk the finest of people.”

With my ego properly satiated, I walked inside Lou’s on Monday seeking to satisfy my appetite too. After stepping past a row of customers’ suitcases, I grabbed a seat at the counter and was greeted by a smiling waitress with “Audrey” stitched on her apron.

Entering Lou’s is a little like walking into a diner the way that Hollywood might imagine one, which makes sense considering that three films (“Ali” starring Will Smith, “The Weatherman” starring Nicholas Cage and “The Watcher” starring Keanu Reeves) have been filmed there.

The walls of the restaurant are adorned with Route 66 signs, license plates and images, while above the counter hang T-shirts urging you to “Get your kicks at Lou’s.” One way to accomplish that might be with a cup of coffee, which is billed outside as “the world’s finest” just below an ancient sign reporting that Lou’s was “selected the No. 1 breakfast and lunch restaurant in America.”

It’s unclear in what year that honor was bestowed or by whom, but the place was jam-packed at 11:30 a.m. on a Monday, so it might as well still be true. At Lou’s, the menu is packed with all your diner staples, but I opted to instead pick from the “Monday Specials” and ordered semolina spaghetti, salad and a cup of navy bean soup.

“Every time I serve spaghetti on Mondays,” Audrey confessed while taking my order,” I want it for dinner.” I took that as a stamp of approval, and the pasta and soup were indeed quite delicious. But it’s the history and atmosphere that makes Lou’s so worth visiting.

That and the characters.

At the counter, two regulars sat down beside me and ordered iced teas before one said, “There are two ways to do things in this world. Right or wrong. And wrong is correct, if you’ve done it consistently.”

I have no idea what that means. But whether you take a right turn or a wrong one, Lou’s is a good place to end up. Or leave from.

That, I suppose, is up to you.