Lou Mitchell’s Restaurant

One of the first stops on the Mother Road, Lou Mitchell???s Restaurant in downtown Chicago offers a scrumptious send off to travelers headed out on historic Route 66. A visit to this crowded, urban establishment is not your average main street experience. It serves to remind us that the hundreds of small towns strung along the great arc of the Mother Road were connected to the two metropolitan giants of Los Angeles and Chicago.

Built in 1949, Lou Mitchell???s is located at 565 West Jackson Boulevard, a few blocks west of Lake Michigan and the eastern terminus of Route 66. To enjoy the full impact of this restaurant???s façade tucked snugly between two taller buildings, view it at a distance from across the street. Visitors immediately focus on the original aluminum and glass storefront. Rising up from the upper front façade and extending the entire length of the building is the eye catching, original 1949 neon sign that proudly states ???Lou Mitchell???s Serving the World???s Best Coffee.??? Another original sign, this one extolling the restaurant???s handmade bakery goods, is still hanging on the front façade. Aside from timely upgrades of the kitchen and bathrooms, the interior of Lou Mitchell???s has not been significantly altered since 1949. The dining room retains its original black and white terrazzo flooring, and most of the dining and counter areas are unchanged.

The booths have their original wood tables, coat racks, and seats, although the seats sport new upholstery. The multi-sided counters with individual stools are original but have newer laminated surfaces and upholstery. Much of the wood and Formica wall paneling dates to 1949. All in all, the stylistic choices made in 1949 point not backward but to the future, to the 1950s. The restaurant???s intense presentation of neon, shining glass, and sleek aluminum truly place this historic eatery in Route 66???s classic Golden Age.

The mix of local Chicagoans and travelers usually found at Lou Mitchell???s underscores one of the most important historical dynamics of the Route 66 experience. In the middle of the 20th century, the Mother Road brought people together from all corners of the country as locals and outsiders rubbed shoulders in countless diners, gas stations, and motor courts. Of course, at Lou Mitchell???s the visitor will probably be literally rubbing shoulders as this popular spot is often crowded, sometimes with lines stretching out the door. To ease the wait, the staff passes out its famous freshly baked donut holes to all, and complimentary Milk Duds to all female guests and children, according to an old tradition. Once inside, diners have the opportunity to sample some excellent breakfast and lunch fare.

Despite its metropolitan setting, Lou Mitchell???s shares a characteristic in common with hundreds of small town commercial establishments that have plied their trade along the Mother Road: it is family-owned and run. Founder William Mitchell, whose original restaurant was across the street on the north side of Jackson Boulevard, named his 1923 startup after his son Lou, who worked with other family members helping to run the restaurant. Lou eventually took over operations and ran the restaurant well into his seventies. In 1992, he sold the restaurant to his niece, Katherine Thanas. It remains in the Thanas family today. Lou Mitchell???s was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in May 2006.