Wednesday, September 12, 2012

one fine morning at hilltop

There is this diner I've wanted to go to ever since we drove by it on Foster months ago. Hilltop Family Restaurant. Look, it's a diner. Basic. Dated. Unattractive on the outside. Which, to me means, possibly the best breakfast experience one can have.  People in Chicago, and maybe all big cities, are all about their breakfast experience.  Endless cleverly named brunch spots are sprinkled throughout the city, one could spend years trying them all.  Some organic, some hip, some tiny, some themed, all with fair-trade coffees, all over-crowded with a young crowd itching for some eggs.  I like my breakfast too. But I like my breakfast quaint. Not to mention, half the price.

"Hey, Hun, sit wherever you want." is how I'm greeted. I smile. Fantastic. The almost empty diner at 8 am has only a few older folks sitting throughout it, one man speaking quite loudly about Obama care. I believe I heard the name Obama twenty six times during my breakfast.  The elderly crowd do like to talk about politics. I pick a corner booth by the window looking out on California Ave, I can see the crossing guard chatting--probably about the teacher's strike--with another fellow guard.  Not many kids to help cross the street during a strike. At my booth are paper place-mats I remember from the diners of my childhood. Arranging my silverware, my lovely white-haired waitress who seems to be running the whole place herself (with effortless ease) pours me my coffee. Ooooo, perfect, I think. It isn't long before I realize I need to start taking notes on this place. It's almost too good to be true. Unless the food is downright inedible, I am well on my way to being a very pleased customer.

One order of banana pancakes and a side of hash browns later, I await my food and take in some more of the scenery.  Slurping down bottomless coffee, I hear my waitress chatting with a lady in the booth behind mine. "It's Elaine's birthday today..." A woman it sounds like she eats with regularly at this joint.  Elaine comes in a few minutes later, for their breakfast together.  Same place, same time.  Consistency can be far more comforting and delightful than any surprise, can't it? We might wish for a birthday party or a little something special, but a birthday breakfast with a friend you've sat across from countless times is what we really long for deep down. Happy birthday, Elaine.

My hash browns doused in ketchup and my pancakes buttered, I'm officially giving this diner a 9 out of 10.  I don't even wish the coffee tasted better, it tastes just how it should at Hilltop.  Cigarettes are sold at the check out, something I've never seen before, unless I did as a kid. I don't remember. Cigs for the parents, suckers for the kiddos.  An Au Bon Pain is being put in across the street at the hospital, I wonder if they do the same thing. It is French, after all, but I have a feeling they don't.

Food half eaten, I was jotting down a few things as a round table not far from me began to be filled with older gentleman, coming in one or two at a time--looking for each other, waiting for each other.  Six in all arrived and filled out the chairs, I wondered if this, too, was an ongoing occurrence.  Something tells me it is.  The hostess talks to the men from across the restaurant, strike's happened all the time in their day. "School didn't let out til June 29th one year." All this wisdom, all this experience and pain and memory stored up at that circular table, in this diner on the corner.  Tell me your secrets, diner. Tell me your secrets, dear, wise elders.  Perhaps I am drawn to the Hilltop for all of these things, desperate for something old, something grounded.  While you're young you have your fun, is that just how it is?

At Yolk, or Orange, or Over Easy or Toast (these are the hip breakfast places, mind you) you'll pay eleven dollars for yours eggs, and three more for your cup of joe. You'll have waited an hour, and been crammed into a table you can't get out of until the one next to you clears.  This can be fun, we can all be fools together, and it's fun.  Yet when I satisfy my craving for the simple and familiar and quiet, I am far more content. Blissfully so.  Come on life, catch up to me, I'm waiting. You can find me at the Hilltop.


Jamie Janosz said...

I love old diners - the greasier the better. And, you're right about the price, too! Funny detail with the cigarettes at the counter :-). When I get a chance to sneak away from MBI, I usually head to the Howard Johnson's diner for breakfast.

Donna Boucher said...

The Hilltop sounds perfect.

Emma Boucher said...

@Jamie Janosz, I have walked by that Howard Johnson's a million times and been tempted myself, guess I better go next time I'm around there. Someone needs to make a Divey Diner Chicago Tour. Forget these fancy eggs.

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