February 29, 2008

The Gadabout—February 29, 2008

Even from the outside, Nookies Tree, a diner that shares its heritage with Nookies in Old Town and Nookies Too in Lincoln Park, has a relaxed nature that stands in sharp contrast to the flashy sequins, boas, and neon typical of other Boystown businesses. The green-and-white street sign only displays three utensils and “Breakfast Lunch Dinner.” Inside, calm green-shaded lights shine over plain white tables; a few plants and a colorful mural along one wall are the only decorations to accent the silver coffee counter. The servers, keeping with the atmosphere, encourage you to feel just as pleasant as they themselves are.

Nookies Tree probably owes its low-maintenance tranquility to the maturity inspired by more than 20 years of serving customers of all kinds at all hours. The diner is open seven days a week—24 hours on Fridays and Saturdays—and more than half the items are less than $10, making it an obvious beacon for your tired, your poor, your hungry, and your drunk. While Nookies Tree advertises itself as serving “casual American food,” the broad range of cuisine it covers and its depth in specific categories of food completely belie the bland description.

Beyond the name, our interest in Nookies Tree was piqued by its specialty claim of all-day breakfast. They mean serious breakfast, too, as in eggs ad infinitum, skillets, pancakes, waffles, French toast, crêpes, omelets, frittatas, and then some. The huevos rancheros we ordered went over quite easily. Although the salsa could have used a little more kick, the scrambled eggs were firm, the rice was tender, the beans were cheesy, and the tortillas were soft. Nookies Tree managed all that with a pretty if bizarre orange slice garnish to boot, an impressive feat given the restaurant’s distance from Pilsen—or, for that matter, Texas.

The variety of appetizers, salads, sandwiches, burgers, pastas, and formal entrées offered as more traditionally evening fare shove Nookies Tree out of the boring diner routine into a genuine dining experience. The nine types of chicken sandwich, for example, feature everything from rosemary-garlic aioli to cranberry-chipotle barbecue sauce. The kick our salsa lacked came bounding back in the fried ravioli, which incorporated a punchy pepper jack that nicely complemented another round of the mild salsa.

No American diner can reasonably lay claim to the name without at least a decent dessert. (Public Service Announcement: As much as we love Salonica, we have to warn you—do not order pie. It is all that is gelatinous and evil in the world, wedged within a cardboard crust.) The high-quality pies and milkshakes of Nookies Tree, though, passed the diner test with flying forks. The chocolate milkshake was large, thick enough for a spoon, and had that perfect chocolate-to-cream ratio that instigates a knee-jerk grin. The apple pie, with its crisply browned crust and generous smattering of cinnamon, proved a warm, delicious antidote to the travesty put forth by Salonica.

For a happy version of Nighthawks, Nookies Tree is the place. The restaurant embodies low-key Americana, especially late at night. At the same time, it also has a remarkable combination of consistently good food and sincerely friendly service that, even if you’re alone, won’t leave you pondering the loneliness of urban life Hopper-style. Nookies Tree certainly isn’t glamorous or gourmet, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to be a quality diner, and it is. One, in fact, that will definitely be the smile of the week.