What makes a diner a diner? There are plenty of factors — no-nonsense food, affordability, an uncanny knack for turning out club sandwiches and omelettes — but perhaps the most important quality is availability. A diner is there when you need it to be there. There’s the community and the homey, comfort-oriented food. But diners are also the kind of place anyone can go for three square meals a day — breakfast, lunch, and dinner — if they choose to do so, without going bankrupt.
The owners of MeMe’s Diner, in Prospect Heights, recognize this. “When people have asked us in the past, ‘Oh, what kind of restaurant do you have?’ I’m like, well, it’s called MeMe’s Diner, but it’s a very liberal use of the term diner,” says co-owner Libby Willis. “It’s a diner, in the sense that it has neighborhood food, which you eat every day.”
Now they’ve taken another step toward achieving the Platonic diner ideal, by launching daytime menus and expanding their hours. There will be some staples of the MeMe’s menu — including the restaurant’s patty melt and veggie burger — but with its debut also comes four new sandwiches and an expansion on one of MeMe’s best assets: its pastry menu.
Co-owner Bill Clark, the restaurant’s one-man pastry team, has developed something of a reputation for his over-the-top bakes like sweet-corn BBQ and Eton mess cakes. So he says he’s excited to double down on his love of baking, concocting such daytime-only offerings like the breakfast egg-and-cheese muffin, which involves baking a whole soft-boiled egg inside a cheddar chive muffin.
There is also the pretzel scone. In a city that’s still reeling from the loss of its pretzel croissants, this is an extremely welcome development. Clark’s creation features scone dough made with ground pretzels, shaped, dipped in lye and salt (like a traditional pretzel), and then baked until it takes on a dark-brown hue; it’s served with jam and butter or stuffed with more filling options like meat and cheese. Is it savory? Is it sweet?
“It leans both ways,” Willis says. “It’s a bisexual biscuit.”
The pretzel scone also feels like a little stroke of genius at the end of an otherwise bleak year. This is not a novelty pastry. This is Lizzo in 2019, a kind of necessary, glorious inevitability.
Not that Clark and Willis expect people to just order a pretzel scone and hit the door. When the restaurant opens at 8 a.m., patrons will also find porridge, cinnamon toast, and a toad-in-the-hole surrounded by mustard greens that they’ve dubbed “Toad in the Grass.”
As for those sandwiches, there’s an egg-salad sandwich with chopped giardiniera for heat; a vegetarian roasted-beet sandwich with finely chopped mushrooms and whipped goat cheese; and a classic turkey club with salami swapped in for bacon, served triple-decker style. Like the rest of the menu, they’re all available to-go.
“The club is a classic,” Clark says. “In fact, we had our first-ever daytime customers sit down and order a patty melt and a turkey club.”
“At 9:30 in the morning,” Willis adds.
Next, the duo wants to figure out how to turn the expanded pastry menu into a catering business for pastries, especially in the category of wedding and special-events cakes. But just like this long-gestating daytime menu, they say they don’t feel any pressure to rush things.
“We’re definitely closer to being the diner ideal,” Willis says. “But we’ll never be open 24 hours — that’s not healthy.”