Eppel’s is the kind of place that’s rarely written about by food critics. It’s simple diner food done quickly and well for working people. It’s been open since Maxwell Street was on Maxwell Street, and it carries on even though few early patrons would recognize its surroundings as their city anymore. I’ve only ever ordered two or three things here, but it’s one of my favorite places to eat.
The last time I came in, the waitress let me look over the menu but knew my order without prompting. Eppel’s Combination #1 Omelet with grits and holly toast. Cheese on the omelet. Coffee and two glasses of water. I hadn’t been in in over a year and she wasn’t my regular waitress but she knew anyway.
Eppel’s sits in the middle of the block on Roosevelt Road between Jefferson and Clinton. A currency exchange, a city uniform shop, and several clothing stores neighbor the restaurant. You can buy alligator shoes and a CTA shirt, cash a paycheck, and eat a meal that’ll keep you going the rest of the day, all without having to cross the street. What remains of Maxwell Street Market is staged every Sunday just a block away. These businesses are a remnant of a disappearing Chicago. All you have to do is look south across Roosevelt. In the last few years Home Depot, Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and Best Buy have all opened outlets and cast their faceless corporate shadows over the few little stores that remain. Yet inside Eppel’s it is as it always has been.
The customers are almost all regulars. They work at the UPS just up the street, carry mail, drive trucks, or police the city’s streets, and the waitresses know them all by their orders if not by their names. The first time I came here was with an old painting professor from SAIC. We went in through the rear entrance, past the bathrooms, and into the narrow room lined with booths. Most tables were filled and as two white guys we were a distinct minority. The waitresses navigated the narrow aisles, loaded down with plates of pecan pancakes, omelets, toast, orange juice, and bacon. Fare made to get you through long work shifts, served quickly and with good humor.
When I started driving a cab in Chicago in 2003, Eppel’s became my last stop before going home. I’ve always loved breakfast food, but driving afternoons until the bars closed made eating in the morning untenable. Fortunately this place opened at 4:30am, just after the late-night bars kicked out the last of their patrons and I’d driven them home. I often arrived just as Lynn, the waitress, or Pete, the cook, was unlocking the front door. If I was lucky, the Sun Times delivery man would have already dropped off the morning edition. Lynn often had coffee, two glasses of water, and the paper on the table of my window-facing booth before I’d even locked the door of the cab. She may never have caught my name—she usually just greeted me with “Cabman!”—but she knew what I was going to order before I went through the motions of studying the extensive menu. A time or two I’d throw her by asking for pecan pancakes, but usually it was my usual, Eppel’s Combination #1 Omelet with grits and holly toast. Cheese on the omelet. Coffee and two glasses of water. I have no doubt there are at least a half dozen other great options on the menu but I never saw a need to find out. There’s something to be said for a predictable, comforting choice when the rest of the day is so tense and chaotic. Eppel’s at 4:30am with the paper, bottomless coffee, and a rapidly filling ashtray was my place to meditate on the night that had just ended. No drunks, no traffic, no constant vigilance. Just a half hour to forget the previous twelve to fourteen hours behind the wheel.
When Chicago’s restaurant smoking ban went into effect in 2006, some of my early-morning ritual went with it. It wouldn’t have been the same to run outside to suck down a cigarette between cups of coffee, only halfway through last night’s baseball box scores. The thing that made a visit to Eppel’s the calm in my night was the chance to just sit and let the hours in the cab recede. I still came two or three times a week after the smoking ban but didn’t linger as long. There usually weren’t many other customers at the hour I was there. Postal workers grabbing a breakfast sandwich and coffee before ducking out to start their day, cops in for their lunch hour, UPS workers girding themselves for a day of lifting boxes, and maybe the occasional group of nightclubbers still done up to the nines, but with makeup smeared and tired eyes, shoveling waffles, eggs, and bacon into their mouths. I never got to know any of them, rarely exchanging words with anyone aside from giving Lynn my order and thanking Pete, who often came out from the kitchen to ring up the check before the morning cashier came in. This is a place for quiet communion at the beginning or the end of one’s day.
Working people’s diners are rarely celebrated because the food served there is more for sustenance rather than entertainment. Much of the purpose of a place like Eppel’s has been replaced by the McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru windows. Those who work long hours rarely have time for a sit-down meal anymore. Like the big-box stores that have replaced most of the shoe, hat, clothing, and fabric shops that once dotted the area, Eppel’s is of another time. A time of simple work done well but not done quite like everywhere else.
Chains offer the comfort of knowing exactly what you’re going to get. You can go to the dozens of Dunkin’ Donuts dotting the city and have the same donuts and coffee handed right through your driver’s-side window. The disembodied voice in the lit-up menu’s speaker may even recognize you if you come back enough times. But it will never be the same as sitting at your regular table with the newspaper and coffee and having a few minutes’ respite from a long workday. For all those who leave their homes before the sun rises or return when the rest of the world is only waking up, I hope there will always be an Eppel’s to get them through.
Eppel’s Restaurant, 554 W. Roosevelt Rd. 4:30am-4pm. $5-15. (312)922-2206. eppelsrestaurant.com