At the tender age of 15, Adam Siska and his pop-punk bandmates in The Academy Is were on the cusp of making the big time. The group received an offer from then-independent record label Fueled by Ramen. While a future as rock stars interested the teens, they didn’t sign their contract at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Instead, at the suggestion of friend and Fall Out Boy frontman Pete Wentz, the band toasted their success in 2004 with pancakes, well-done hashbrowns, and French toast from Denny’s in suburban Schaumburg, hidden in the shadows of Woodfield Mall, about 25 miles northwest of Chicago.
“Someone probably ordered some Moons Over My Hammy,” recalls Siska.
Music is no longer Siska’s full-time gig, but he recalls growing up around diners on tours with his bandmates including lead guitarist (and former Curbed Chicago editor) A.J. LaTrace, receiving advice from Wentz, and mingling with other underage kids who listened to punk rock.
A limbo exists for teens who attend shows at bowling alleys, basements, and dives: They’re too young to go to bars and too cool for fast-food restaurants, which aren’t open all that late anyway. And when the concert gets out, it always feels too early to go back to mom and dad in their suburban homes. Why not gather at the late-night diner? With their all-ages approach and reasonably priced menus, diners were and, and to an extent remain, integral to local punk scenes — in Chicago and beyond. In similar pockets across the country, diners represent an underappreciated tradition as a third-place escape where all ages commune.
The all-ages punk rock scene in Chicago encompassed venues like Fireside Bowl in Logan Square, the Riviera in Uptown, and the Metro in Wrigleyville. The Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl has talked about seeing his first show at the Cubby Bear, which created a punk haven away from jocks in the ’70 and ’80s. Ironically, these types of sports fans now pack the bar across the street from Wrigley Field, representing a mainstream audience and even warranting a mention in Ted Lasso.
The legendary artist Steve Albini came to the Chicago area as a teen from Montana to enroll at Northwestern University in Evanston in 1980. Albini — who went on to tour with bandmates in Big Black and Shellac before producing iconic albums for Nirvana, the Pixies, the Stooges, and Helmet — recalls how he and his friends were treated by jocks and others for their mohawks, dyed hair, piercings, and leather jackets.
“You’d be traveling with your cohort — you wouldn’t be by yourself that often — but when you were, meatheads would drive by and shout ‘Devo’ out the window. That was a common epithet,” Albini says. “Devo had appeared on television and they were sort of the archetype for weirdo bands. So that was latched onto by all the meatheads as an insult.”
Being grouped with Devo never felt like an insult to Albini, but there was comfort in knowing punks could find shelter at legendary late-night Chicago restaurants like Salt & Pepper Diner, Jeri’s Grill, Pick Me Up Cafe, Clarke’s, Cozy Corner, and the Golden Nugget. There, kids could talk about bands and develop the type of relationships that could bring young musicians closer together, fostering a strong rapport they could take to the stage with them. In that way, diners became incubators for musical talent. Without alcohol, the straight-edge movement took off, with kids shunning shots of Jägermeister for milkshakes loaded with whipped cream.
“Diners know that they’re not making high cuisine,” Albini says. “And the great diners have an atmosphere about them, which makes sitting there for as long as it takes to get through your breakfast and the conversations that ensue.”
In April, the Chicago Reader spotlighted Jim’s Grill, a Korean spot that was open in the ’80s near the Metro on Irving Park. The restaurant had a large vegan selection, a rarity for the time: “The underground music community, being the adventurous group of people that we were, we wanted more adventurous food than, say, going to Denny’s or Olive Garden,” Jim Magas of Lake of Dracula said of the restaurant.
Alas, not all towns have a Jim’s Grill, and for plenty of kids in the north and south suburbs, Denny’s was the only game in town for a late-night snack. Plus, cell phones were rare in the ’90s. No one had Google or Yelp (or Eater) to direct them to hidden gems. Places like Jim’s Grill gained reputations through word of mouth, much like the bands its customers listened to.
Melissa Geils, the general manager of Logan Arcade, was part of a faction that included Wentz and other punk rock kids from the northwest suburbs, who relied on Denny’s as a gathering spot. She admits Wentz was a “little twerp,” but most folks in that scene were: “We were shitheads. We would order a bowl of croutons with a side of ranch, all of which costs nothing,” Geils says. “And I look back now and I’m like — oh my god!”
But don’t worry, the kids always made it up to servers by tipping appropriately. Or not.
“There was tipping, but it would be like change — which still I feel awful about,” Geils says. “Although I feel like over the years I’ve got the karma that has come back to me working in bars at this point for over 20 years.”
In the ’90s, Geils was driving her 1988 Buick to the Fireside Bowl to see bands like Apocalypse Hoboken, Oblivion, Sidekick Kato, Slapstick, 88 Fingers Louie, and Not Rebecca. Some of the kids had difficult parental situations and the diner kept them away from their challenging living arrangements. Geils, who stresses a strong relationship with her parents, recalls her group would even call a Denny’s waitress “momma.”
“I took art classes at a little private art school and I met a bunch of people that went to Wheeling High School,” Geils says. “They’re all misfits.”
It took Denny’s execs a few years to see the trend. The ’90s were a particularly troubled time for the chain as a string of racist incidents damaged its reputation. But by the early 2000s and the rise of eyeliner, Denny’s began a campaign aimed at emo kids. This wasn’t quite the Dead Kennedys licensing a song for a Levi’s commercial, but it represented an odd corporate-punk alliance — the kind Mathew Lillard’s SLC Punk character might consent to after shaving his mohawk and enrolling in law school at the end of the 1998 movie.
The chain unrolled items like Sum 41’s Sumwich (a French toast sandwich with ham, cheddar, and eggs, sprinkled with powdered sugar), Good Charlotte’s Band of Burritos (Boca Burger vegan crumbles, shredded cheese, mushrooms, peppers, onions, spicy mayo), and Gym Class Heroes’ After School Special (Texas toast topped with hash browns, shredded cheese, bacon, peppers, onions).
Geils doesn’t want people to think her Denny’s crew was angelic. The kids did their fair experimentation with drugs, and then showed up at the diner, much to the chagrin of other customers and staff. (The chain pulled its own punk rock move and ignored multiple requests for comment. Also, save a few screenshots, the existence of this menu isn’t readily found on the Internet.)
But some of the DIY spirit remains. In 2019, a 17-year-old booked a punk show at a Denny’s in California. Footage of the mayhem went viral with the classic phrase: “What the fuck is up Denny’s?” Attendees caused about $2,000 in damage to the restaurant. Perhaps feeling a little nostalgic, members of Green Day stepped up and paid for repairs.
Naked Raygun singer Jeff Pezzati reminisces about the antics he and his friends got into in the ’70s and ’80s. Sometimes things got violent; he describes a memorable altercation in Lincoln Park, outside a diner on the corner of Lincoln and Sheffield where a Lou Malnati’s pizzeria currently stands. Without social media, there’s no real record of incidents like this. Geils admits that her cohort — mostly of white, suburban kids — was somewhat protected from any legal or academic consequences.
“I’m pretty sure there’s no way people of color would have gotten away with what we did — sitting for hours and hours smoking and ordering a coffee. Like there’s no way,” Geils says.
These days, it seems like the gap between kids and their former family-style restaurant hangouts has widened, at least anecdotally. Maybe it’s the rise of smartphones and social networking, or restaurant owners focusing on customers that can legally purchase alcohol. Arcades were a mainstay for youngsters in the ’80s, but home consoles and skittish elected officials who didn’t want to give venues permits for arcade machines pushed those all-ages venues to the brink of extinction. It’s easy for Geils to draw the comparison because she works at an arcade bar that was recently gifted with a neon sign from Silver Sue’s Arcade in Rogers Park, a relic of the ’80s: “Once the Black kids would start coming to hang out, places like this often ended up closing,” Geils says. “But Silver Sue’s was a place that didn’t.”
Coffee shops have picked up the slack, but that format faces its own unique challenges. Valeria Socorro Velazquez Lindsten owns Loba Pastry, a Roscoe Village bakery that was closed from 2021 until, following a crowdfunding campaign, it reopened in May. Loba is notoriously kid-friendly — for customers and workers, as Velazquez Lindsten would hire youngsters. In Chicago, where headlines easily villainize troubled kids, Velazquez Lindsten says “a little understanding goes a long way.”
She feels adults have let kids down in closing diners and other all-ages places. “My favorite places have closed, I really liked Jeri’s Diner because it was open so late,” Velazquez Lindsten says. “If you’re a young person going around the city, maybe you’re drunk or don’t want to go to another bar — it was a great place to go.”
Albini agrees. “There are effectively very few places for young people to spend time together,” he says. “It doesn’t take a genius to realize that if you have no outlet for your youthful energy and you want to hang out [or] congregate in groups, that you’re going to eventually find yourselves doing it at big groups and then in the park.”
Later in June, The Academy Is will reunite and open for Fall Out Boy on a bill that includes Alkaline Trio. A walk down Clark Street shows a very different neighborhood, (one without the Alley or Punkin’ Donuts) compared to when Siska played the Metro back in 2010, transformed by the owners of the Cubs, the Ricketts family. CTA improvements have also changed the area. Siska fondly remembers his time at the Pick Me Up Cafe, a vegan-friendly spot with a killer jukebox that has since moved to Andersonville. Signs for the original location remain outside a space that’s stayed vacant since 2020; that Denny’s in Schaumburg is still open. Siska is grateful for the chance to play at Wrigley but won’t be looking to rekindle any of the magic from his teens.
“I’ll let the invites come to me,” he says with a laugh. “Times change and people get older and have kids. [Fall Out Boy] has been so gracious to have us play. I’m not going to take any more of their time.”