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Chicago Diner Turns 30, Plans New Vegan Cookbook

By Serena Dai | March 22, 2013 7:39am

LAKEVIEW — People told them they were "pissing against the wind."

A vegetarian restaurant with a greasy spoon look — in the 1980s? No way.

But Mickey Hornick, 63, and Jo Kaucher, 60, proved them wrong and will celebrate The Chicago Diner's 30th anniversary on April 2. 

Now, with the way mainstream vegetarianism has spawned better ingredients, the couple plans to release a second cookbook before the holidays this year to include updated and new recipes.

"Everything in the natural food world has gotten better," Kaucher said. "We're just trying to keep up with the times."

The Chicago Diner, with locations in Lakeview and Logan Square, offers vegan food that mirrors the trends of the "standard American diet," Kaucher said.

 It's about looking at classic recipes like reubens and burgers and figuring out how to veganize them — a good strategy for a restaurant that serves as a transition between meat-eating and hardcore veganism, she said.

Customers have been asking for another cookbook since the first one was released more than a decade ago, Kaucher said. Now that more options exist in grocery stores, the diner has been able to cook more creatively, she said.

Gone, for example, are days of just soy milk as the dairy alternative. Almond milk, grain milk, coconut milk, rice milk and more are mainstream. The new book, which will feature about 100 vegan recipes and is still unnamed, will be easy-to-cook dishes that won't require grocery shopping at specialty stores.

"We want to keep the cookbook easy," Kaucher said. "We don't want somebody to try and get a long grocery list. If you're making something, and you don't have it, go to another ingredient."

Kaucher and Hornick's personal life will impact the recipes, too. For them, eating right is a way of life. Through the years, they've gone from vegetarian to vegan to raw, back to veganism and to gluten-free.

Last month — perhaps to the slight chagrin of chef Kaucher — Hornick even decided to try SOS, or salt-free, oil-free and sugar-free, in an effort to watch his health. So at Hornick's request, a couple of recipes in the new book will fall under that diet, like soups beefed up with herbs and vegetables sauteed with water. 

Meat-free may be pretty mainstream now, but Hornick, an enthusiastic man who left the finance world to go full-on "hippie" in the '80s, considers running a socially conscious restaurant his contribution to the world.

"There’s a lot of worse things to do than run a vegetarian restaurant for 30 years," he said.

The Chicago Diner is located at 3411 N. Halsted St. and 2333 N. Milwaukee Ave.