Abandon your preconceived notions of ambiance before entering the stylishly designed Sweet Diner.
Trailing the smiling hostess, I pass through the open space illuminated by modern lighting, clear the espresso counter, with its on-tap cold brew, and reach our seats, which seem made of hammock materials, but are really quite comfy. I unfold the white cloth napkin, placing my silverware in the proper positions on the table. Sweet Diner, you are not like any “diner” I’ve been to before.
The earliest known diners were reconstructed electric trolley cars. By the 1920s, the prefab lunch cars were factory-manufactured. The industry grew like crazy in the ’30s and ’40s, some operating 24 hours a day. Universal is the image of the Greek family-style diner with a menu offering greasy breakfasts to gyros, chimichangas to ribs. It’s the everyman definition of modern diners that makes this Third Ward looker such a surprise. The Chicago owners kept tight wraps on details before the opening, and let the staff tell the diner’s “story” – an edgy vibe that manager Genevieve Vermeulen describes as “rock ’n’ roll.”
The breakfast/lunch menu takes on genres such as rich wake-up food (caramel apple pancakes), trends (avocado toast), regional American (Memphis fried chicken) and quasi ethnic (chilaquiles skillet) cuisine. The five-meat skillet and others scream “carnivore,” but vegans are also making their needs known, says Vermeulen, and Sweet Diner has plans to amp up the plant-based selections. The Wisco omelet ($11) is the antithesis of that, but illustrates one of the better hearty egg dishes. Light and fluffy, it pops with chunks of pork sausage and melted cheese curds, along with a side of roasted breakfast potatoes, some spuds a little firmer than others but flavorful. The “chilaquiles” skillet ($12) – while not traditional – is a tasty egg-potato-chorizo sauté topped with corn relish, shredded cheddar and crispy tortilla strips.
If you think of eggs Benedict as the litmus test for a good breakfast joint, the Southern Benedict ($10), with house chive biscuits, sausage patties and a solid peppery sausage gravy, passes. The flavors meld. That’s not the case for the Mediterranean Benedict, for two reasons – the pungent olive salad on the eggs and a pond of hollandaise sauce ($10). The cornbread waffles with Memphis fried chicken ($15) is an unexpected goodie – the waffle is tender, the breaded chicken succulent. I recommend drizzling it with maple syrup and a little vinegar-based BBQ sauce. And if you like your breakfast sweet, the crème brûlée French toast ($12) is that and more – encased in a crackly sugar crust and golden-crisp.
The “lunch” section takes pains to avoid being pedestrian. One example, the protein pack salad ($9) is like a modern seven-layer salad made of lentils, greens, brown rice, carrots, onion, ham and a nutseed blend with lemon dressing. The diner’s croque madame ($10) – ham and cheese sandwich topped with a fried egg – doesn’t compare with a French restaurant’s. The bechamel isn’t rich enough, nor is there enough Gruyère cheese. It needs decadence.
Like the atmosphere, the menu suggests this is no cliché diner. Despite bumps in food and service in its first weeks, it’s getting a sweet welcome. Weekends have been mobbed. With further finessing, this could be one sweet retreat. ◆
239 E. Chicago St., 414-488-9600.
Hours: Daily 6 a.m.-4 p.m.
Service: Enthusiastic, but still very green.
Reservations: No, but uses the No Wait smartphone app.