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12 hours overnight at one of Chicago’s last 24/7 diners


Danny Gustafson sits quietly at the counter, sipping a milky coffee. He stares at the wall and twiddles an unlit cigarette in his fingers. It’s 3:58 a.m. 

His mind wanders. He remembers his late father, who brought him to Chicago in 1965. He thinks about his work as a repairman, monotonous at times, but grounding. Then, he thinks about Pam.

“I last saw her in the ’70s,” Gustafson said. “I never wrote to her. I wish I did.”

Pam was his first love, and perhaps his last. They dated in high school.

“I think she’s probably passed by now,” he said. 

At this hour, the Golden Apple Grille & Breakfast House in Lakeview is a refuge for a mismatched cast of loners, drunken couples, night owls and shift workers. No one seems to mind Gustafson’s late-night ramblings. In fact, he’s a regular.  

The 24/7 diner, one of Chicago’s last, hasn’t hung a closed sign on its doors in more than five decades. Yes, really. Just ask manager Pete Evangelou, who insists the doors can’t lock. He’s a man of few words. 

“No keys,” he said.

As diners vanish across the country, the Golden Apple offers a daily tableau of city life. It’s a quintessentially American institution, a deeply egalitarian place. 

Other journalists have explored the restaurant at odd hours. In 2000, reporters with National Public Radio’s “This American Life” chronicled an entire day at the diner. The Tribune recently spent 12 hours inside, from 5 p.m. Saturday to 5:26 a.m. Sunday, to see who might venture inside.

Noah Brown kisses fiancee Leyandra Snyder as the couple dines at 8:57 p.m. with Snyder's mother, Maria Snyder, at the Golden Apple, June 22, 2024. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)
Noah Brown kisses fiancee Leyandra Snyder as the couple dines at 8:57 p.m. with Snyder’s mother, Maria Snyder, at the Golden Apple, June 22, 2024. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

So, what’s changed over the decades? Bygone are the checkered tiles, neon blue booths, smoking section and newspaper stands. But other aspects — the culture, the food and many of the regulars — are frozen in time. Outside, rain pattered against the glass, cutting through the night sky. The restaurant’s classic neon sign illuminated Lincoln Avenue like a shelter in the storm. 

5:53 p.m. 

Waitress Maria Gonzalez, 44, laments each delivery person who picks up an order. She loves to interact with customers, and a to-go box feels impersonal. 

“They don’t even look up at us,” she said. “They just look at their phones.”

Gonzalez makes up for the quiet with a contagious enthusiasm. She talks about her two divorces, her four children, her boyfriend and her tattoos. She hums as she buses tables and adds “honey” or “hon” at the end of each sentence. She punctuates every word by waving her pink acrylic nails.

“Even my boss told me one day, ‘I see everything on camera. I see you dancing,’” Gonzalez said. “But I’m like, ‘But have you ever had a customer complain?’”

Sit-down diners — many of them open 24 hours — once blanketed the country. The first diners operated out of horse-pulled wagons in the late 1870s. Their lengthy breakfast menus and frill-free atmospheres became a predictable comfort for late-night workers. Soon, they proliferated west, peaking in the 1940s and ’50s amid a booming post-war economy. 

Beginning in the 1970s, however, fast-food chains became steep competition. Thousands of diners shuttered their doors. Recent years have brought additional obstacles, from the COVID-19 pandemic to the rise of online food ordering apps, such as Uber Eats and GrubHub. 

7:13 p.m.

The Golden Apple’s traditional breakfast fare hasn’t changed in decades. Its laminated menus are several pages and the servings are massive. Want an omelet? It comes with a heaping pile of fries. Oh, and two slices of bread. And don’t forget coffee. 

It’s perfect for 29-year-old Isaac Henry. He’s a chef at Smythe, one of Chicago’s three-star Michelin restaurants. Most days, he’s in the kitchen crafting intricate dishes on the restaurant’s $300 tasting menu. But after a long shift, the last thing he wants to do is cook. 

“There’s not any Waffle Houses up here, so this is the next best thing,” Henry said. He speaks in slow, measured phrases, with his coarse hair tied back in a bun.

Frank Tripkovich sips coffee at 10:35 p.m. at the Golden Apple on June 22, 2024. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)
Frank Tripkovich sips coffee at 10:35 p.m. at the Golden Apple on June 22, 2024. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

Henry picks up a pen, scrawling notes in his journal. In his writings, he grapples with his relationship with the restaurant industry. It was his dream to work at Smythe, but the high-stakes environment fueled his alcoholism. He’s now six months sober. 

“Right now, I’m kind of mad at the industry,” Henry said. “I’m trying to figure out what I want to do next.”

10:02 p.m.

Waitress Susan Bivins, 64, started her shift at 10 p.m. on the dot. She’s kind, but tough. Perhaps a personality combo that’s needed to shoulder the graveyard shift for five years.

Despite the physical toll, she wouldn’t want to work anywhere else. 

“I have nowhere else to be,” she added. 

Servers Maria Gonzalez, left, and Susan Bivins laugh at 9:52 p.m. as their shifts intersect at the Golden Apple on June 22, 2024. Gonzalez has worked at the restaurant for one year and Bivins has put in 30 years. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)
Servers Maria Gonzalez, left, and Susan Bivins laugh at 9:52 p.m. as their shifts intersect at the Golden Apple on June 22, 2024. Gonzalez has worked at the restaurant for one year and Bivins has put in 30 years. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

She recognizes a group of 20-somethings that walk in and sit at the front booth. Some of them call her, “Ma.” 

Bivins remembers most patrons who pass through the doors. In the episode of “This American Life,” a man tramped around the diner playing harmonica about 4 a.m. most days. Twenty-four years later, he still stops by on occasion.  

“Oh yeah, the harmonica guy,” Bivins said as she folded napkins. “He was here not too long ago. Maybe four months.”

Manager Evangelou begins his shift boxing takeout orders. The no-nonsense Greek immigrant was one of three men who bought the diner in 1984, though he’s since sold his shares. His voice was featured on the radio show. 

“Sometimes, I’m walking home, I’ll put it in my YouTube to listen again,” he said. 

12:46 a.m.

The diner is busiest past midnight, with customers spilling in from nearby bars. A woman laughs a little too loudly with her adult son at the counter. A couple indulges in a stack of pancakes after a house party. A 21-year-old in a bikini top scorns her newly engaged ex-girlfriend. Just another night — or rather, early morning — at the Golden Apple. 

Other than the wait staff, Joshua Corey might be the only sober person here. He sits with near-perfect posture, dark tousled hair falling over the rim of his glasses.

“I love diners. I love the mugs, I love the bad coffee, it’s great,” Corey, 53, said. “I’m feeling a little nostalgic.”

Diego Hernandez and Alexandra Lopez say grace at 11:30 p.m. before having a late dinner with their daughter, Abigail Hernandez, 18 months, at the Golden Apple in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood on June 22, 2024. The family travels in from Buffalo Grove on occasion to dine at the restaurant. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)
Diego Hernandez and Alexandra Lopez say grace at 11:30 p.m. before having a late dinner with their daughter, Abigail Hernandez, 18 months, at the Golden Apple in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood on June 22, 2024. The family travels in from Buffalo Grove on occasion to dine at the restaurant. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

Pages of intricate, cursive writing are strewn out before him. His finger traces one paragraph, over and over again. He’s attempting to finish his first novel, a work of historical fiction based loosely on the life of Chicago boxer Barney Ross during the Prohibition era.

“Three-hundred pages into the manuscript, but no end in sight,” Corey said, crinkling his nose. “I just love what language can do, you know?”

3:05 a.m.

Even at this hour, there is no seedy underbelly to the Golden Apple. The servers rarely confront unruly customers: Most people sit alone, in silence. Across the street, the towering St. Alphonsus Church glows in the darkness, keeping watch.

Eric Arnold, 65, flips through a magazine as he eats hash browns and sips a glass of milk.  He comes to the Golden Apple a few times a month. He likes the way everyone seems to know everyone. 

“That’s Sue,” Arnold said as Bivins poured his water. She smiled. 

A group of diners protect themselves from rain at 11:39 p.m. upon leaving the Golden Apple in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood, June 22, 2024. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)
A group of diners protect themselves from rain at 11:39 p.m. upon leaving the Golden Apple in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, June 22, 2024. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

Unlike other late-night patrons, he’s dressed in business casual, donning a pressed, white polo. His deep voice, with a hint of a New York accent, echoes through the restaurant. Even in his retirement, he’s a true salesman. Leaning back in his booth, he explains his latest venture. 

“My mom can’t pronounce it, right? She calls it ‘charcutie,’” Arnold said. “She’s having aphasia, but ‘charcutie’ is so damn cute. So I thought, why don’t we do a little small board and call it a ‘charcutie’ board?”

It’s a work in progress.

4:51 a.m.

Sunlight begins to stream through the glass. There are so few customers that the kitchen staff can duck out from behind the grill and watch the TV, which is playing reruns of the Olympic trials. 

It’s much too early to ponder life’s looming existential questions. But in their post-bar haze, Josh Howe and John Abad do it anyway.

“We’re talking about imaginary, cutting-edge stuff. For example, do photons really not have mass?” Abad, 42, said. “If so, how does gravity —”

“— I think light can actually be sped up and slowed down, but he thinks it’s constant,” Howe, 48, said. “And we haven’t even gotten to time travel yet.” It’s their usual late-night ritual. 

Rain falls at 12:06 a.m. outside of the Golden Apple Grille & Breakfast House in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood on June 23, 2024. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)
Rain falls at 12:06 a.m. outside the Golden Apple Grille & Breakfast House in the Lakeview neighborhood on June 23, 2024. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

Across the restaurant, Evangelou and Bivins settle into their own routine. The pair reminisce about politics, their families and the misadventures of food service. There was a time, they said, when a line would stretch out the door. 

It’s not always economical for the Golden Apple to stay open 24/7, but it doesn’t matter. 

“Always open,” Evangelou said, shrugging. 

Where else do the drunken friends go when the bars close? The lost chefs and the lost writers? Or Gustafson, still waiting for his high school sweetheart?

People change, neighborhoods change, but the Golden Apple remains. 

Evangelou rubs his eyes as he stands behind the cash register, gazing out toward the deserted sidewalks. He’s on until 6 a.m. Then, he’ll do it again the next day. 

He doesn’t mind: “It feels like home to me.”



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