Jeri’s Grill had many regulars. There were the early-morning coffee drinkers, the midday socializers, the drunk midnight breakfast fiends, the wanderers with nowhere else to go. The most devoted abbreviated the diner to its first name, as if it were a person they knew well.
“Jeri’s was like a very good, stable parent,” says Luke, guitarist of Crude Humor, a now-disbanded punk band once fueled by equal parts of pent-up rage and hash brown/omelet combos. “Always there when we needed it.”
Located on the first floor of a corner building on the north side of Chicago, with wraparound windows and an interior that was always lit up, Jeri’s had that quintessential Nighthawks feel, sans the overriding air of loneliness. On the contrary, Jeri’s is remembered as a place where people came to be together, twenty-four hours a day.
“It was the central hub of the neighborhood,” says Frank Di Piero, Jeri’s last and longest-running owner. “All the gossip and rumors would come through there.”
Frank inherited Jeri’s from his father in 2000. Determined to maintain the diner’s original kitsch, he never changed a thing. From the day it opened in 1963 to its abrupt closure this past May, Jeri’s had the same fake wood paneling, the same linoleum tiled floors, the same black and red counter stools, the same overcrowded wall decor, including but not limited to: multiple framed photographs of Elvis Presley, a hand-written sign advertising the “Jailbird Special,” and tinsel that lined the windows all year round.
“It was a big deal when we added Swiss cheese to the menu,” Frank says, chuckling. Before that, the diner had stuck to American.
At first, Jeri’s closure was temporary, one in the slew of government-mandated shutdowns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. But after nearly two business-less months, and with no reopening date in sight, Frank wondered whether or not Jeri’s would make it. Takeout and curbside pickup were out of the question—Jeri’s was a diner. It was the kind of place people went to mingle or mull for hours over bottomless cups of coffee and cheap finger food. When you ordered a basket of fries at Jeri’s, you weren’t just ordering a basket of fries. You were ordering a basket of fries plus an old-fashioned booth, a gallery of tchotchkes to eye up, the gravelly twang of an oldie on the jukebox, and the pervasive siren scent of grease—all in all, a rare and coveted escape from the fast-paced hullabaloo of the twenty-first century. You couldn’t order that to go.
By May 10, the loss in revenue was too great. Frank called it quits. That morning, he posted a sign in the front door—a piece of computer paper printed with twenty-point Arial font—announcing the diner’s permanent closure. “Jeri’s Grill was a part of the past living in a modern world,” the sign read. “If these walls could talk, they would tell beautiful and sad stories of many lives.”
Within hours, Jeri’s customers across the city mourned the diner’s demise. My Twitter feed swelled with photos, anecdotes, and eulogies. “To all the midnights spent at Jeri’s,” read one post by an old high school acquaintance, who, in my vague, slightly drunken adolescent memories, exists only within Jeri’s fluorescent interior. There were many people from my past whom I remembered this way, as if they were fixtures of the diner itself, familiar to me only within that liminal space, between 12 and 3 a.m., when we would all pile into the booths to riff with one another and get sober before returning home to our parents and another day of school, homework, chores, the prescribed parts of teenage-hood.
The next morning, a photo of a homemade cross, a taped-together fork and spoon left on Jeri’s doorstep, circulated the internet. Comment sections were endless strings of “RIPs.” It was as if someone had died.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to end. Frank’s father opened Jeri’s Grill on the corner of Montrose and Western Avenue in 1963. Over the years, the North Center neighborhood underwent considerable transformation—from predominantly medium-income German and Polish immigrants to teetering on the edge of yuppie-bred wealth—but the diner itself was our rock.
While gastropubs, organic grocers, and boutiques with detailed business models blossomed within Jeri’s proximity, the Di Piero family stuck to the formula they knew best—which was, in fact, less of a formula and more of an intuitive act of community service, as naturally generous as it was profitable. Slowly but surely, North Center congealed into yet another middle-class, smoothed-over hub of high-end residence and commerce, but Jeri’s—stubborn in its modest, timeless way—persisted, never ceasing to draw a vibrant and eclectic clientele.
“Jeri’s was a small part of a lot of people’s lives,” Frank says. “People came in to tell us news. People came after weddings. People came after prom. It was a sight for countless filmings: commercials, TV shows, independent movies, college projects. More than I can remember.”
Even Jeri’s regulars were a hodgepodge bunch: from bachelors to retirees to local families to gangs of bored teenagers to Rocco Corbino, a Chicago native who occupied the same booth in Jeri’s every morning for sixteen years. He says the place was like a family.
“When I first started going there, I was saying, ‘Jesus Christ, look at these bastards. They must be coming here every day because they’ve got nothing to do.’ But now, when I wake up, going to Jeri’s is the first thing I want to do.”
When I told Frank I wanted to do this story, Rocco was the first person he recommended I talk with. The way Frank put it, Rocco was as much a staple of Jeri’s as the Jailbird Special or the counter-seat banter. Every morning, he would place a stack of business cards on the diner windowsill, and, if he wasn’t making small talk or selling himself, he was holed up in his booth, surveying the place over a newspaper or a cup of coffee.
Rocco describes his booth—emphasis on the his—with the same intensity of affection someone might reserve for a family heirloom, or a vintage car. I’m reminded of Cameron’s father’s disposition toward his Ferrari 250GT California in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
“It was the last booth against the wall—all the way at the back.” Rocco sighs over the phone. I can’t see his expression, but the wistfulness in his voice is unmistakable. “That way I could have a bird’s eye view of the door.”
I imagine what my conversation with Rocco would be like if we were not in the middle of a pandemic, and I had gotten to sit across from him in his booth as he practiced his regular’s routine. He’s eager to talk to me now, nonetheless, but the whole exchange has a quiet, precarious sadness to it. We skirt around the heavy topic at hand, until we can’t anymore.
As a self-employed, vivacious sixty-something-year-old, Rocco’s got enough spunk and endurance left to get through the death of his favorite diner. It’s the other regulars—the older ones—he’s worried about.
“Jeri’s closure is affecting him pretty hard,” Rocco says of one regular in particular, an eighty-two-year-old man who lives in the neighborhood and would come in every morning to drink coffee and chatter and do whatever else it was that kept guys like him coming back to Jeri’s day after day.
“I try to stay in touch with some of the older regulars on Facebook,” Rocco says. “But many of them are curmudgeons. They will not use a computer.”
As Rocco’s laments insinuate, the death of Jeri’s isn’t just a COVID-19 story. It’s a story about something larger, widespread: the fading of a generation, the loss of local community, the people on the fringes. Where did they go when the thread finally split?
Throughout my high school years, Jeri’s Grill served us as a convenient late-night destination. Many of my friends lived in the neighborhood, and our unofficial stomping ground—a park with a gazebo perfect for shenanigans—was located just across the street. For us, Jeri’s wasn’t a place we planned to go; it was a place we ended up. It was there whenever we needed a break from the outside: when the weather was bad, when we were tired or hungry or bored, when our desire for familiarity and comfort was stronger than the desire for recklessness and spontaneity—equally strong but opposing forces during those days.
Our Jeri’s experience wasn’t an isolated one. For young people across the city—especially the angsty, deviant, beatnik types—Jeri’s was a backroad escape, a humble alternative to mainstream cool, in the same way as inheriting a parent’s love for vinyl or comic books.
“Jeri’s had a noir thing,” Frank says. “I suppose that’s the appeal for younger people. There’s more blood, sweat, and tears at Jeri’s than there’s going to be in a McDonald’s or a Starbucks.”
That appeal even went so far as to inspire a band out of Chicago’s north side to name themselves Jeris Girll.
“As a young person in Chicago, you’re often navigating spaces that are meant for adults,” says Mattie, the band’s lead vocalist. “The feelings of nostalgia you get from being in those places are kind of about connecting to your parents’ upbringings, but also about making them your own.”
Mattie grew up a few blocks from Jeri’s, as did Molly, the band’s drummer. Though they both frequented the diner throughout their childhoods, it wasn’t until Mattie and Molly began going to Jeri’s on their own, first as pre-teens and then as high schoolers, that it became a kind of creative oasis.
“As we got older, Jeri’s became the space we found our voice in,” Molly says. “It was one of the only places that wouldn’t shush you or judge you. You could be completely ridiculous, so long as you were respectful, and Jeri’s would match your energy.”
Mattie and Molly started playing together in 2016, when they were freshmen in high school. Zebadiah, the band’s bassist, joined a year later. Naming themselves Jeris Girll wasn’t so much a reference to the diner itself as it was a celebration of its spirit.
“We named ourselves based on the place in which we felt safest to be loud,” Molly says.
As the band suggests, the world-at-large doesn’t expect a group of young, openly queer women and trans folks to be loud—onstage, maybe, but definitely not off.
“At Jeri’s, we never really had to think about gender,” Mattie says. “It was really a place I would hang out with my queer friends and feel safe.”
“Diners are the kind of place you can go at any hour of the night, and they don’t look at you any different than the guy who just walked in,” Zebadiah adds.
Jeris Girll wasn’t the only band influenced by the diner. Some years before, Crude Humor—a band that arose from an adjacent Chicago high school punk scene—was having its own moment of Jeri’s-induced artistic reckoning. In 2015, the band put out a tape called Jeri’s Grill. Discordant, angry, and fast, the music didn’t exactly scream diner, but, according to the band, that contrast was the point.
“It was an essential part of the magic of Jeri’s Grill,” Luke, Crude Humor’s guitarist, says. “We’d go from playing a show that was already very intentionally hardcore, intentionally very angry, often for and about a certain community, and then come to Jeri’s to have this other kind of experience that was also very unifying.”
Oddballs in their own right, the members of Crude Humor found solace in Jeri’s forthright hospitality. For them, the diner was more than a place to unwind and debrief after shows; it was a place they could be completely silly and candid.
“I loved the jukebox,” Luke says. “Every time we’d go, we’d make it a point to play the same songs. I remember one time I put on a twenty-minute version of ‘Macarthur Park’ by Donna Summer. The waitresses and servers were all really enjoying it and singing along. This was at, like, 1 a.m.”
In comparison, Luke references a chain of twenty-four-hour diner-style restaurants littered across Chicagoland. “I don’t think a place like The Golden Nugget would have taken a similar delight in regard to the silliness of young people,” he says. “And a very mixed-race group of young people, at that. We were a predominantly person-of-color band. A bunch of queers were also in these groups that would flock to Jeri’s, and in my experience, we never got reprimanded, which could have easily been the case elsewhere.”
Omar, Crude Humor’s lead vocalist, posits that the diner was a catalyst—as well as an object—of the increasingly political nature of the band’s music.
“Jeri’s resonated with me because it had this old-timey feel that encompassed many of
the things my lyrics were directed at or against,” he says.
Perhaps the band’s most adept fusing of Americana with punk was their album art. With the flare of a 1950s magazine advertisement and the mismatched imagery of a Dalí painting, the composition is grade-A satire.
“Our album art was about appreciating the representation of one particular set of history in order to defang it,” says Luke, who tends to speak with the perceptiveness and elevated vocabulary of an art historian, no matter the subject. “Taking atrocities of the world and turning them into something palatable, something mass-produced.”
Luke’s words resonate on a visceral level as well. If there was one place that could make the less-than-appetizing parts of America palatable—that is, quite literally, consumable—wasn’t it Jeri’s? America served with a pickle, a sense of humor, a healthy dose of campiness and character-driven community—what was more palatable than that?
For me, a big part of Jeri’s inclusive atmosphere was its sense of permanence. Jeri’s never blinked. From the day it opened in 1963 to the day it closed in 2020, Jeri’s was open, round-the-clock, to anyone who walked in. Its culture was everything and nothing at all, pieced together by the identities of employees, regulars, and happenstance customers alike.
“Someone would come in for a cup of coffee,” says Vickie, who worked as a waitress at Jeri’s for over twenty years, up until the very end. “One thing led to another, and we’d become family.”
Today, the pandemic continues to afflict independent businesses across the country, and a pattern is emerging: places like Jeri’s are the first to go. According to the results of a survey published by the James Beard Foundation and the Independent Restaurant Coalition last April, nearly eighty percent of independent restaurant owners did not believe the CARES Act, or any of the other last-ditch government efforts to protect small businesses, would keep them afloat. Several months later, their predictions are appearing to come true. What’s left over from the pandemic’s wrath are not the family-owned neighborhood gems like Jeri’s, but the fast-food corporations and Michelin-star restaurants that can afford to stay put, creating, in effect, a food landscape that’s dishearteningly representative of America’s rising wealth gap.
“[The White House’s new ‘Economic Revival] ‘Food & Beverage Group’ is dominated by massive corporations and chains,” writes independent restaurant owner Rohini Dey. “And independent restaurants are represented by four white male celebrity chefs (steeped in French fine dining) who are not remotely reflective of the angst, depth or diversity of our sector.”
It is true that the popularity of diners had waned before the onset of COVID-19, their disappearance a result of compounded cultural and economic factors: rising rent prices, less leisure time to “dine,” expanding development projects, and shrinking profit margins. But I see no shortage of Roccos or Matties or Lukes in the world. Rather, there’s a shortage of resources designed to preserve and protect places like Jeri’s.
“I always said, it’s easy for some rich corporation to put in a fifties-style diner,” Frank says. He’s responding to my sorest question, the one I’ve been dreading: what will replace the Jeri’s community? He doesn’t bother speculating. Instead, he repeats the narrative he knows and loves best. “We were real. There was nothing fake about us.” Frank touts Jeri’s authenticity as a badge of honor. “What you saw was what you got.”
In our increasingly fraught contemporary reality, nostalgia offers more than just an existential buffer; it helps us to grieve and, in turn, look toward the future. In 2021, my memories of the Jeri’s community feel more and more like snapshots from a dream. Already, I can sense that Jeri’s—and everything it stood for—will become a marker of time, the kind of American cultural icon that things come either before or after. And if there’s any comfort to be had in the diner’s fate, maybe it’s just that.
To use Frank’s words, “Jeri’s will be a part of Chicago forever.”
Molly Bryson is a former intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a recent graduate of Oberlin College, where she earned a BA in art history and creative writing. A Chicago native and devotee, she thinks it is only fitting that her first two post-grad wins are this article and a gig with Chicago magazine, which she commenced just this past week.