Stafford: Familiar breakfast on the road feels like home


If you ever find yourself on McCormick Avenue beside the Skokie/North Shore Sculpture Park north of Chicago, you’re not far away.

Head south, find Oakton Street and take a right.

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When you see the Chicago Transit Authority car repair shop, you’re about there. Sparky’s is across the street at Oakton at Monticello, a corner it shares with the Chicago School of Violin Making.

Although there’s plenty of parking room out back, I usually dodge a pole in the tiny front lot so my 89-year-old mother doesn’t have to walk far. We leave the walker in the back of the car and she holds my hand or arm for the walk in through two glass doors that form a vestibule.

She loves the place because it reminds her of one of the mom-and-pop hash houses that came and went in the small towns of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where she grew up. The miners, farmers and men who worked in the woods there would have felt at home in Sparky’s, where the atmosphere is as warm as the heat coming off the grill.

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If you’ve come out of the cold, somebody on one of the row of stools that parallels Oakton nods a hello as the kitchen warmth hits. Then a wave comes from behind the counter, and you pass through into a room with about 10 two- and four-top tables hovered over by a waitress who reminds you of a favorite aunt.

If you order coffee, you get a small plastic carafe, which usually last the meal long.

Though I grabbed the oatmeal a week ago Saturday and the waitress smiled when I asked her to bring whatever they have to dump on it, I usually get a side of the corned beef hash with my two eggs over easy and cinnamon raisin toast.

I like the runny yolks mixed in with the corned beef hash.

The days I’m there, the customers seem like the same kind of ideal mix.

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And although it’s made up of different ethnicities, you get to know them by their regular orders, which the waitresses all know. Those who eat steak and eggs hear before ordering their coffee that their favorite cut is in.

If something is particularly good that day, the waitresses say so. And because they welcome newcomers just like the old timers, everyone feels welcome, and strangers share conversations as easily as they do salt and pepper shakers or little containers of jelly.

So a group of Northwestern University fans, all dressed in purple, don’t give you the stink eye if you ask whether they’ve dyed any of their blood line purple. Instead, they smile and promise to give it some thought when the next child arrives.

Stan, who volunteers at the old folks home my Mom lives in, stops by with a handshake and a nod and doesn’t mind that she gets his name wrong the first or second time.

Although there are menus, all the items also are listed on wall mounted Coke or Pepsi menus that are a few decades old, each item spelled out in block blue letters whose edges slide between slats in the white background.

What you see is what you get.

But when you leave, you feel you’ve gotten more. So there’s an urge to go back inside and thank them — thank them because you’ve been made to feel like Sparky’s is your place, too, in the way the old Woody Guthrie song made people feel this land was made for you and me.

So even if you have to dodge a pole when you’re backing out of the lot, it’s not the least annoying, because you know your day is off to a better start.



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