Eye on Monday: Late Night Dining…My Way

When it comes to what I like to call Late Night Dining, I’m referring to restaurants (or stands) many would call a “dive.”  But one man’s dive is another man’s 5-star eatery.

With that in mind, I give you my three favorite places in the United States that fall into the category of 5-star slices of simple, culinary Heaven.

Original Tommy’s World Famous Hamburgers in Los Angeles (Tommy’s) – When I was attending USC several hundred years ago, one of the first nights I was in my dorm I heard a late-evening shout of “TOMMY’S RUN!”  I had no idea what this meant but I was instructed I had to go.  Figuring this was some sort of L.A. ritual I needed to immerse myself in, I went without asking questions.  Within 30 minutes, I understood.  I was a convert to the cult.  The importance of The Tommy’s Run was now clear to me.  What makes their burgers unique and indescribably sensational is their beanless, off-the-charts chili.  You must experience a Tommy’s Burger to understand its greatness.  Chili, onions, mustard, pickles and a tomato the size of Cleveland.  My way:  Double-cheese, no tomato, no pickle, extra chili.  Superb.  And…you must not go there earlier than 11:00 pm.  Trust me on this.

Original Tommy's World Famous Hamburgers

Pat’s King of Steaks in Philadelphia (Pat’s Steaks) – I moved to Philly in 1972.  The first week I was in high school, I was on my way down to South Philly one Saturday night for a Phillies game.  Afterwards, it was explained to me we needed to go to Pat’s.  Pat’s?  Cheesesteaks, I was told.  I had no idea what a cheesesteak was.  But I was going to Pat’s, I was going to like it and I would need to learn how to order one.  A joke?  No…this is Philly.  No one jokes about cheesesteaks in Philly.  As you wait in line, there’s a sign that explains How to Order a Steak.  Fair enough.  You need to specify whether you want your steak with or without onions.  With, you say “Cheese wit.”  Yes, “wit”…..it’s Philly, deal with it.  You tell them which cheese you want (Cheese Whiz is the original…don’t cringe until you’ve had it…it rocks) and then you assemble your money.  The last step:  Practicing how to order while waiting in line.  And if you make a mistake…just go to the back of the line.  I was told “don’t screw up, they will send you to the back of the line.”  Again, it’s Philly…they’re serious.  My way:  Extra-cheese wit.  A culinary treat.

Pat's Steaks

Lafayette Coney Island in Detroit (Lafayette) – Before I got into radio and writing, the next-to-last play I did was for Mitch Albom at the City Theatre in Detroit.  Working with an amazing group of actors, these folks ate as hard as they played.  Before a Thursday night performance, one of them said to me “after the show tonight, we’re doing Lafayette…and you’re doing it with us.”  It was ominous, it was firm and apparently I had no choice.  This was Detroit.  Downtown Detroit.  You don’t reject offers in Downtown Detroit.  I had no idea what “doing Lafayette” meant.  Was it legal?  Will I embarrass my family?  As it turned out, I was ready to buy stock in the place after my first trip.  Chili dogs are what’s on tap here.  Again, it’s the beanless chili that’s the star…there isn’t a hot dog on earth, including my hometown Chicago-style dogs, that compares to a Lafayette Coney Dog.  My way:  Chili, mustard, onions.  Eat one, you may have four more.  It’s legal, but it can get embarrassing.

Lafayette Coney Island photo by Ashley Dinges

photo credit (features page): m.v. jantzen

Filed Under: CultureFood

About the Author: Christopher Gabriel is the host of the cleverly named Christopher Gabriel Program on AM 970 WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota. You can hear him weekdays from 9 to Noon. As a writer and humorist, his work has been been published online by the Chicago Sun-Times, Reuters and publications within the Sun-Times News Group.

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  1. Adam Shake says:

    Aaahh Pats.
    My mouth waters just thinking about those cheese steaks sandwiches. The only time I’ve been there was after getting off a greyhound bus, as a much younger man, living a different life, and half starved.
    There is a story in there about hiking the Appalachian Trail and breaking an ankle and laying up for a week in a hiker hostel, but hey, were talkin cheese steaks heya!

    The best. Nuff said.



  2. CGabriel says:

    The amazing thing about Pat’s is that it can be below 0 outside but it stops no one from coming, ordering and standing there eating them as if it’s 75 degrees. That’s dedication to The Pat’s Cheesesteak!

    As always Adam, thank you for coming by! The next steak’s on me. 🙂


  3. terri says:

    I’m open to anything with beanless chili and cheese. And I am quite hungry now, I might add. I may have to arrange travel plans around these locations just to sample such fabulous foods!


  4. CGabriel says:

    I have to tell you Terri, if money wasn’t an object – and we could sell our daughters on the need and joy of cheesesteaks, chili dogs and chili burgers – we’d be on that plane with you. I know each city quite well so we could work out an itinerary as follows: Airport – Pat’s – airport – Lafayette – airport – Tommy’s. We often have Pat’s/Lafayette/Tommy’s cravings…it’s actually a good thing none of those places are here. I couldn’t jog/walk enough to keep up with the massive caloric intake!


  5. PhillyPat says:

    Whiz is a MUST! Your blog couldn’t be more timely…


    WASHINGTON (CNN) – During a long presidential run that featured countless campaign stops in eastern Pennsylvania, Barack Obama consumed his fair share of cheesesteaks.

    And unlike former presidential candidate John Kerry, who once committed the cardinal sin of ordering the sandwich with Swiss cheese at Pat’s King of Steaks in Philadelphia, the president has apparently learned a truism of campaigning: a real cheesesteak is served not with Swiss, provolone or cheddar … but with whiz.

    During a Monday press conference, Obama went out of his way to demonstrate this knowledge after meeting with small business owners from around the country, including Marco Lentini, who owns an organic restaurant in Philadelphia.

    “I asked him, what was the equivalent at his shop of a cheese steak,” Obama said of the meeting. “And he described to me, what was it? A chicken … ?”

    Lentini interrupted, drawing laughter from the president and the press corps.

    “A chicken Italiano,” he explained eagerly. “A chicken cutlet, spinach Florentine, sharp provolone, all on Italian ciabatta bread.”

    “Right,” Obama said. “So, I wanted to know if there was whiz on that. And he said no.”

    During the campaign, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said the future president could use a daily cheesesteak ration. “Perhaps the only thing I don’t like about him is, he’s too thin,” he said.

    Obama was quick to point out the perils of too much Pat’s. “A cheesesteak, once a day,” he mused, “and I will have the pleasure of looking like Ed Rendell.”


  6. Mike says:

    It’s usually the smaller establishments that are the best-kept secrets. There was a little pizza joint down home that we used to order from all the time. It was amazing; far better than anything you’d get at one of the mainstream places. Whenever I go down to see my parents, I will stop in more often than not.


  7. CGabriel says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Growing up in Chicago, it was the neighborhood places run by families serving pizza, Chicago-style hot dogs, Italian beef, pasta, etc. that were our favorites.


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