In 1982, Mickey Hornick and Jo Kaucher paged through The Joy of Cooking while standing in the tiny Lakeview kitchen at the Chicago Diner that has gone on to serve thousands of vegans and vegan-curious folks in Chicago and across the country.
Kaucher, trained in what was called “natural cookery” in the parlance of the era (think: The Enchanted Broccoli Forest and lots of sprouts) was charged with developing and finessing the recipes, and Hornick, the Chicago Diner’s owner and founder, sampled and offered feedback. Hornick had health issues that compelled him to adjust his diet and was new to vegetarianism when he got the idea to open a restaurant. “I needed a place to eat,” he says, matter-of-factly.
Hornick and Kaucher would eventually marry in 2003, but in 1982, they were just starting on the path to founding what would become one of the nation’s most iconic vegetarian institutions and one of Chicago’s most enduring restaurants. The diner is vegetarian, though it caters to the vegan community where it’s considered a pillar. Committed to regional and seasonal produce well before “locavore” was a word, much less a movement, Hornick and Kaucher’s challenge came from persuading customers who expected steaks when dining out into trying and enjoying plant-based versions of comfort foods.
Using The Joy of Cooking as their jumping-off point, the pair dove into the process of crafting what would become their annual Thanksgiving meal when they opened the restaurant in 1983. Hornick borrowed, hustled, and scrimped for the initial money needed to open the restaurant, using a vintage bar from a recently closed diner as their first counter; a mirror, found in the alley behind the restaurant, was fixed to the wall behind the counter. A couple of local hippies skilled in carpentry built the booths and every penny was stretched to its limits. Hornick would personally go to farmers markets to buy whatever fresh produce was affordable and also deliver cakes himself to their wholesale clients. For the first 20 years, they didn’t know if the Diner would survive each winter.
And with the Diner’s 40th anniversary approaching in 2023, Hornick seems to be as surprised with its longevity and success as anyone. “I was so scared we were going to fail, I spent the opening day with butterflies in my stomach, not wanting to open,” Hornick says. “We opened anyway and it was packed. Somehow we did it.”
Compared to the rest of the country, when the Diner opened, it was a far different landscape in the restaurant scene in Chicago, the city that stands on the unceded traditional homelands of the Council of the Three Fires — an alliance primarily of the nations of the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi. Before there was the concept of Ivy League grads disrupting things in Silicon Valley, before Turtle Island Foods debuted its legendary Tofurky roast in 1995, there was a scruffy little independent restaurant in the Chicago neighborhood then known as Boystown that was not only poised to expand the meaning of “comfort food,” but to start shifting attitudes in the one-time hog butcher to the world by going sans animal products on that most sacrosanct of U.S. holidays: Thanksgiving.
But Hornick and Kaucher eventually learned that even the city made famous in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle had room for their unapologetically herbivorous interpretations of classic dishes. The Diner’s holiday entree menu has evolved over the years from stuffed acorn squashes and pumpkin ravioli to the more traditional centerpiece dishes it features today for their carryout Thanksgiving. Chicago Diner’s signature Wellington, a flaky and buttery puff pastry filled with sauteed seitan, mushrooms, and mixed veggies and served with a shiitake demi-glace, is a showcase main dish for any Thanksgiving table, as is the hearty stuffed veggie roast — a roulade with herbed stuffing filling a smooth, seasoned tofu roll. These are classics that people return to every year. More recently, with the increased demand for gluten-free options, Chicago Diner has offered a savory mushroom lentil loaf with a white truffle sauce.
“We want to offer something delicious for everyone,” says Michael Hornick, nephew of the founder, who started in the kitchen with Kaucher and is now president and partner in the restaurant. “Mickey and Jo remember when there was nothing for vegetarians, let alone vegans. We want everyone to be included at the holiday table.”
Everything on the holiday menu, from main dishes to sides like Mac ’n Teese, featuring dairy-free cheese from Chicago Vegan Foods (also the makers of the ice cream behind the Diner’s award-winning milkshakes), as well as jalapeno corn fritters, and desserts like carrot cake with walnuts and chocolate pumpkin cheesecake, is vegan. There are also gluten-free options in every category on the Thanksgiving menu.
While the Diner is an institution these days, visited by everyone from the late movie critic Roger Ebert, who was a regular, to Lady Gaga, the early days were a stressful learning curve. Hornick lacked experience as a restaurant owner (he also had something of a crush on his chef). This led to sometimes complicated, hectic, and stressful Thanksgiving dinner services. For the first years of in-person Thanksgiving dining, the Diner had sold out seatings of 56 people every two hours until close with more than 200 people served that day. Many walk-ins also showed up to order carryout, which overwhelmed the two kitchens and staff. The first year, exhausted from cooking all day and running up and down the stairs with to-go orders, Kaucher remembers declaring that the kitchen was officially closed for takeout orders after their last seating. Hornick, though, wanted to continue. They bickered on the steps before the situation resolved on its own. (They ran out of food).
“We had to cut people off but I didn’t want to,” says Hornick. “I wanted to sell more.”
Today, the Diner, now with a second location in Logan Square, is one of the longest-lasting vegetarian restaurants in the United States. Kaucher has also passed the torch. For the past 10 years, chef José Martinez has adapted the classic recipes Kaucher created for modern and more globally influenced palates, adding white truffle mushroom sauce to elevate her famous lentil loaf and a rich, veggie-supercharged seasonal special of enchiladas de mole negro.
“I can hardly believe how much veganism, from restaurants to products, has exploded,” Kaucher says. “I’d like to take some credit for it, but I can’t do that. We were early adopters. Just don’t call us pioneers,” she warns with a laugh. “I can’t stand that.”
These days, with his nephew running the day-to-day operations and business, Hornick and Kaucher enjoy Thanksgiving away from the stress of the kitchen and the restaurant floor. Some things, though, remain the same, including their Thanksgiving meal. “I usually get the Wellington,” says Hornick, “and Jo gets the stuffed veggie roast and she’ll also make some sides. It’s our tradition.”
Asked if he misses the hustle and bustle of a busy holiday season in a restaurant kitchen, Hornick says that he doesn’t miss the stress but seeing the customers line up outside remains a joy when he pops in. “When the Diner starts to smell like Thanksgiving, the adrenaline kicks in again,” he admits.
“Meat-free since ’83,” he says, repeating the Diner’s slogan. “That’s pretty cool.”
Chicago Diner’s heat-and-eat Thanksgiving meals can be ordered until 6 p.m. Sunday, November 20 for pickup on Wednesday, November 23.