During the afternoon of November 2, 2016, I went down the block from my house to get a late lunch at my usual neighborhood spot, the Belmont Snack Shop. I could always count on this small counter diner, which has been a longtime mainstay of the Avondale community, to serve a reliable, affordable, and quick meal.
I got the usual Denver omelet with hash browns and coffee and was talking with the server, Jan, and cook, CJ, about how I was supposed to leave for a trip to LA a couple evenings prior, but decided last-minute to cancel my plans and stay in Chicago to see if the Cubs would clinch the final game of the World Series and end their notorious championship drought.
And as fate would have it, the Cubs did go on to become the 2016 World Series champs later that evening.
But that late afternoon lunch would also be one of the last memories I have of the two staff members I’d gotten to know over the years. The next summer, CJ Robinson, the cook who I’d chatted with about the Cubs, action movies, and local politics, died suddenly at 45 years old while commuting to work. And the server Jan, whose affable and humorous personality made patrons feel welcomed, was involved in a freak vehicle accident while waiting for a bus. While she survived the incident, I never saw her at the Snack Shop again.
Then the restaurant lost server Linda and another cook, Carl.
The Belmont Snack Shop is no stranger to tragedy. And on the evening of October 8, 2020, the Avondale community endured yet another loss related to the diner. This time, it was the restaurant itself.
I was laying on the couch in my living room when I saw a haze blanket Belmont Avenue just after it turned dark outside. It almost seemed like a heavy fog, but it wasn’t raining and it wasn’t cold enough to snow. A couple of emergency vehicles blew by my building, signaling that there was likely a significant fire nearby.
As soon as I walked out of my front door, there were already a handful of fire trucks and squad cars clustered near the Belmont and Kimball intersection. As I got closer, it was apparent what was happening. The roof of the Belmont Snack Shop was lit up in a blaze as fire crews moved in on ladders ready to tear into the building.
On the ground, one team of firefighters smashed in the diner’s front windows, while another team tackled the blaze from above. The cacophony of firemen yelling, the screaming whir of the gas-powered chainsaws ripping into the roof, and the ominous sounds of shattering glass were surreal and unsettling. Dozens of onlookers gathered, taking photos and videos on their phones, staring in disbelief, as if this year hadn’t already been cruel enough.
Immediately following the fire, the building was boarded up, but there was still some hope for a reopening. The day after the fire, restaurant co-owner Nelson Rodriguez told Block Club Chicago that he and business partner Paul Schiller hoped to reopen the diner, but it would depend on how the insurance claim and finances worked out. However, as of this past Thursday, the owners announced that the restaurant will remain closed permanently. A GoFundMe was created, raising nearly $7,400 to help out the business owners and apartment occupants make it through the coming weeks; but beyond that, the Belmont Snack Shop can be considered yet another casualty of 2020.
So what do we lose when we lose the Belmont Snack Shop? To some, it might not mean much. In truth, the restaurant was a dive, and not necessarily in an endearing way. The old school wood paneling was dirty and greasy, the (presumably) asbestos flooring had long been worn out, the hodgepodge of Ziggy comics taped to the wall were faded, and a lingering sewage smell was a recurring phenomenon.
But the place was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, come hell or high water. Speaking of, I’ll never forget walking by the restaurant one time when Belmont Avenue was flooded during a major water main repair. The water was so high that it had also flooded the sidewalk. But the door to Belmont Snack Shop was propped open and they were serving food.
It was the kind of place I’d take out-of-town visitors, or meet with a friend for coffee to catch up, or just have a quick bite on a weekend morning before getting into projects around the house.
From late-night revelers to transit-dependent commuters to immediate neighbors, the simple counter diner was a place where anyone could get an affordable meal at any time of the day, on any day. The Snack Shop was basically a relic of the past — a relic of when the Avondale neighborhood was largely an industrial, working-class community. That’s not to say that Avondale is no longer a working-class neighborhood, but it’s one experiencing the rapid change that other communities along the Blue Line have witnessed in recent decades.
However, at this point, it might be safe to say that, generally speaking, the counter diner is now an endangered species around these parts. There was Johnny’s Grill in Logan Square, another beloved greasy spoon which, after many years anchoring Logan and Kedzie Boulevards, abruptly shuttered in May 2014. By 2020, the list of permanently closed restaurants has grown exponentially, thanks almost entirely to the COVID-19 pandemic. Jeri’s Grill in North Center and now Belmont Snack Shop have been added to the list.
In a lot of ways, the pandemic and subsequent recession is picking up where gentrification left off. The ongoing economic pressures and uncertainty of the pandemic have overwhelmed many of Chicago’s small businesses beyond their breaking point. And with little reassurance of when the pandemic may eventually end, it’s still unknown how many more establishments will close in the coming years.
It’s these local businesses and commercial corridors that add vibrancy to our communities, but the fate of countless other beloved neighborhood bars and restaurants — and our neighborhoods as we knew them — is still up in the air.