Part of the Chicago Icons series from the 2023 Best of Chicago edition. Read the rest here.
All streets have their individual character and qualities, and Ashland Avenue, like that of Western, is one of Chicago’s quintessential streets that reflects the city’s ethnic, economic and social diversities. From its southern source at 95th Street in Beverly (which is also known for being one of the most racially integrated neighborhoods in Chicago), Ashland bisects diverse Chicago communities including Englewood, the Back of the Yards, Pilsen, the West Loop, Bucktown, West DePaul, Lakeview, Andersonville to where it ends its journey at Clark and Rosehill Drive. It was, in its own essence, a reflection of the multiplicity in America with its roots in working-class communities that have shifted over time both racially and economically, but still over its many manifestations has kept its allegiances rooted in family values and the elusive “American dream.”
Having grown up in the Back of the Yards, which, like many communities between the 1950s and 1970s was a cloistered enclave separated from other neighborhoods by ethnic, religious and economic factions, I began my rudimentary explorations outside of my hermetic and insulated world northward in the middle seventies driven by the music scenes that intrigued my nascent awareness. These investigations were prompted by my own budding inquisitiveness and tangential influences such as listening clandestinely in my parent’s home (basically, sitting on the stairs that went up to the attic) to commercial-free progressive-rock radio station Triad, which would later see its reincarnation on the radio frequency which still is WXRT, listening to an intriguing, eclectic selection of little-known bands for the time like Hawkwind, Faust, Can, David Bowie and Kraftwerk. I would supplement these embryonic studies by working for a year at Rose Records on Wabash beginning in 1972, which further exposed me to alternative music influences and even more so to the expansive offerings of jazz, film soundtracks, classical, opera, soul, funk, exotica and the hidden gems to be unearthed in the second floor cut-out bins.
As my journey progressed, I began listening to punk rock from its inception, due to reading such magazines as Creem and musical journals like NME, which in turn led me to Yardbird Records at 3332 West 63rd Street where I was able to find imported 45s by such now-iconic bands as The Clash, Ultravox, 999, The Sex Pistols and the Pork Dukes. It was helmed by two avid music and vinyl aficionados Arnie Rubin and George Paulus and Arnie’s second mate and helper Jack Dopke who had an encyclopedic knowledge of doo-wop and vocal groups and even memorized the matrix numbers for these records. Arnie, who became my good friend and mentor (he would die much too young), would take me out digging in South Side cut-out bins where he would point out to me hidden gems from bands such as the Thirteenth Floor Elevators and The Sonics.
Sometime much later, after my years spent DJing at the Club 950, aka Lucky Number, I would start doing the same at the Lizard Lounge at 1824 West Augusta in the Bucktown neighborhood. By this time my interests carried over toward soul, funk and world beats but I still kept my allegiances rooted in rock with a nod toward the experimental. Since I was making these weekly/nightly excursions north in the mid-eighties, I started to seek out the little independently run businesses that were clandestinely hidden about the neighborhood and was introduced to Harry and Donna’s at 1010 North Ashland.
Harry and Donna’s was the quintessential Mom & Pop diner put together on a shoestring and held together by the passion of the proprietors and the simple good food and the camaraderie of its patrons. Such establishments, or rather, hangouts, were what sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote about in his study “The Great Good Place,” raising the clarion call against the emergence of gentrification and the slow loss of social rendezvous places that extolled communal democracy. His study would later use the subtitle, “Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community” and he eulogized the need for such avenues where individuals could commingle, discuss the issues of the day and try to find a workable balance of compromise (while at the same time getting their hair cut, a drink for the evening or, in Harry and Donna’s case, an inexpensive lunch).
The establishment, close to the William H. Wells Community Academy, had a quaint wooden storefront with a middle door cutting the front in two with curtained windows on either side. On the north outside wall, the sign “Incredible Italian Cheeseburger” beckoned you in, to a small interior with a eight-seat counter on the north wall and a few mismatched tables that had an odd assortment of thrift store bric-a-brac and some selected nicer Art Deco pieces on the wall. Harry—no one that I talked to knows either his or Donna’s last name since they kept their personal lives quite hidden—was the host, taking your orders, which he handed to Donna as she scurried back-and-forth from the small kitchen that was off bounds to all except Harry.
Harry was the epitome of clean-cut charm, always wearing a tight, small-collared shirt with a constant bowtie in place and a pair of slacks that accentuated his thin stature. He sported a wavy yet slightly gray hairstyle that was always properly coiffed and he would banter with the customers, or in the diner’s case, a roving group of regulars whose daily attendance seemed compulsory, like morning mass. Donna was the yin to Harry’s yang, diminutive, prim and proper in her simple ensembles and with a slight stoop. Her domain was in the small kitchen and at quiet times, she would take a break so she could gossip with her patrons about their love lives and business activities.
What made the diner special was the small yet delicious menu that they specialized in. Besides the aforementioned “Incredible Italian Cheeseburger,” which was in no way an embellishment, Donna would bake once a week a tasty and fragrant chicken pot pie. Besides the juicy cheeseburger which was always on the menu, Harry made a sweet yet slightly bitter red iced tea that was especially addictive. He would never divulge his hidden recipe for his concoction but as I found later it could be used as a nice addition to champagne on special occasions. The diner never had any French fries but Harry somehow found the smallest bags of potato chips to accompany the cheeseburgers.
During this period in the early to mid-eighties, the diner was a congenial meeting spot for either the teachers at Wells, tradesmen like electricians and carpenters who were rehabbing the old buildings in Noble Square and Bucktown (hence today’s gentrification) and the emerging yet often quirky artist who came to the neighborhood for cheap rents. Its destination provided quick access to public transportation and parking which now is harder to find. At first, the regulars mistook me for a teacher at Wells since I always brought along a Russian or French classic novel to read on my long journey on the Ashland bus. But food at the diner was a good remedy for the hangover that was often a vestige from my DJ activities at the Lizard Lounge from the previous night. And, for some reason that still escapes me, it seemed that they were always playing a loop of episodes from the classic 1960s television comedy, “The Andy Griffith Show,” which nicely mirrored the essential down-home charm of Harry and Donna’s.
As the neighborhood further gentrified, this hidden gem was besieged by the new locals, which made Harry and Donna’s tasks more difficult to keep in place and their standards faltered until they decided to close shop. Harry passed away before Donna, but I would sometimes see her meandering down Ashland with a small food cart and we would stop to chat and catch up. Every so often, when in the area, I would lightly knock at her door to see how she was doing. At some point, I believe that she moved in with her sister but so much about them and their business is conjecture. There is to my knowledge no information online on its history or place in Chicago’s hidden hospitality industry and there are no photos to be found. This is not too surprising since their existence was decades before social media and no cellphone cameras existed to document their small shop. Supposedly, their original location was around Belmont and Broadway, but I base that on a short conversation that I had with Harry because I was intrigued about what made them tick.
I retain many friendships made at Harry and Donna’s during those memorable years. Like much of Chicago over time, the neighborhoods have altered physically and economically but what is missed most is the passing of a culture with an essential component of individuality that was often unique and idiosyncratic. The current manifestation and ubiquity of Starbucks’ establishments and seemingly hipster joints could never fill this void.
Joe Bryl, previous co-owner and musical director of the famed Chicago nightclub Sonotheque, has focused on a wide-range of eclectic, underground sounds in his thirty-plus years in the club and entertainment industry. Bryl was an original partner in the creation of the renowned music venue HotHouse and was also involved in the early days of The Funky Buddha Lounge. Once named by the Chicago Tribune as Chicago’s “Most Interesting DJ,” he has exposed Chicagoans to a diverse selection of left-field dance music, ranging from Rare Groove, Latin, Funk, Brazilian, Steppers, African, Acid Jazz and Neo-Soul. Recently, he was the musical director for Dorian’s Through the Record Shop in Wicker Park, booking artists like Jeff Parker, Daniel Villarreal, Jaimie Branch, George Freeman, Frank Catalano and Isaiah Collier. He recently retired from that position and continues DJing at Giant Penny Whistle, Soif Wine Lounge, Bronzeville Winery, Estereo and Quality Time.