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May 22, 2001

Carbon Copy: 24-7 diners

Houston's 16 Bennigan's locations offer a trademarked Irish experience you can only have on three spots in Chicago. There's an Applebee's somewhere in this town, too, surely the same 'neighborhood restaurant' as its eight clones in New York City and five in Nashville. Granted, New York has eight Applebee's because it has eight of everything, including the great stuff; and Houston and Nashville's Tex-Mex and soul food restaurants more than redress the problem of franchise trash. (Chicago, though, is less about the highs and lows and more about the ill middle ground: the diner.) Remember, we're not talking about Five Cities middle ground. A cheap check in the Big Alpo shouldn't have more than three digits, cents included. And though you wouldn't know it from living in Hyde Park, many Chicago diners (about 30) never close. When you've graduated from Togo's and IHOP, independent 24-7 greasy spoons are always worth exploring, and half of the time aren't disgusting.

The best combination of food, price, and real atmosphere is at Le Sabre (1969 West Montrose Avenue), where Genie, a real-life coal miner's daughter from Kentucky, serves a relatively cheap and diverse menu.

Stockyards Truck Stop (4512 South Halsted Street) is the nearest diner to Hyde Park, but you don't win the Darwin award by cruising there with obnoxious friends late at night. Despite wonderful patrons, okay food, and decent prices, its location near Englewood's northern border puts you in the area of many late-90s serial murders.

A safer 24-7 bet on the South Side, though less cheap, is the Green Light Lounge (5315 South Pulaski), where I witnessed my first all-out bar brawl in the adjacent greaser tavern. Smothered in eyeshadow and ready to snap, the Green Light's stalwart Pat will serve you meat, potatoes and beer any time of night, along with truckers and night shift workers.

Trade some of those truckers for trenchcoat white kids in "South Park" toboggans and you have the Hollywood Grill (1601 West North Avenue). At the grill stools, old guys are arguing Joe Louis vs. Sonny Liston; in the booths, kids are arguing whether Blink-182 sold out. This plush, absurd place on Ashland and North is, along with Melrose (3233 North Broadway), one of the better-kept 24-7 restaurants. Unlike Melrose, Hollywood Grill has its own parking lot.

To speak with the president of absurd decor, go further north on Ashland and become a constituent of El Presidente (2558 North Ashland Avenue). This one's worth at least one visit, and since it's always open, you have less excuses not to go.

Most thorough neighborhood integration award goes to the fantastic Golden Apple (2971 North Lincoln), and best unused view goes to the legit but grimy White Palace (1159 South Canal Street).

Finally, it's not 24-7, but the Loop's Ohio House diner on Ohio and LaSalle works as an antidote to the redonculous restaurants in that area (Rainforest Cafe and Rock 'n' Roll McDonald's are a block away). Ohio House has implausible stats for its location: $6 meals, free parking.