Story by Selena Fragassi
Photography by Robin Subar
If it’s true that spontaneity is the spice of life, then it’s no surprise that the last 25 years have been filled with so much flavor for Aydin Dincer and his customers at Prairie Joe’s. In the past two and a half decades, the instinctive chef and owner has turned the Central Street diner into one of the longest running restaurants in Evanston, famous for its changing menu of international dishes and just as eclectic décor full of thrifted 8-track players, old cameras, travel books, and Dincer’s own rotating gallery of artwork.
True to self, even as Dincer looks upon the special silver anniversary and ruminates on what the future might hold for the popular establishment, he quickly admits, “I don’t really make plans. I just wait until something comes along.”
It’s been the same story since Prairie Joe’s was founded in 1991. Back then, Dincer had already amassed quite the resume in the culinary world. After learning how to cook working at the now-shuttered Printer’s Row Restaurant—one of the first city spots to offer American fine dining—Dincer was chef/ partner at the Oriental-flavored Star Top Café in Lincoln Park. He eventually found work with the original owners of French bistro Jilly’s Café on Green Bay Road; however, Dincer was looking to acquire his own spot again and had his eye on a place around the corner at 1921 Central Street, which at the time in was a no-frills snack shop.
“I knew the owner. I heard she got married and I figured she was going to sell the place, so I came in early one day and she asked if I wanted to buy it from her,” recalls Dincer. He signed the papers and, soon after, also poached the old barbershop next door. The move allowed him to expand Prairie Joe’s into today’s bustling two-room operation, named for the spot’s cross street and his son, who originally worked alongside him.
The diner is still very much a family operation— Dincer’s wife is involved and his daughter is often seen carrying plates back and forth from the open kitchen to a hodgepodge of vintage Salvation Army tables. Dincer also considers his regular clientele an extension of his brood. “We do have a lot of loyal customers, and over the years we have become very close friends,” he says, noting how just the other day one of them helped him get a trapped bird out of the restaurant. The restaurant also caters to regular bible group meetings and, on the other end of the spectrum, a one-time visit by Jerry Springer.
“We get a lot of word of mouth,” Dincer says of one of the main ingredients behind the successful run he’s had since the early ‘90s when the northern downtown district was beginning to attract a younger demographic in tune with the bohemian vibe. “I always thought it would do well in Andersonville or Wicker Park,” he admits, but sticking to Evanston’s established clientele allowed him to stay afloat even amidst all the changes in the town’s evolving epicurean scene. Traditional diners have hit a new stride in recent years. Prairie Joe’s extended brunch service (or as Dincer calls it, ‘lunch with eggs’) is especially popular, drawing in nearly 200 people every weekend. “We are holding our own and doing better every year,” he says. “People can get something special here in a very casual, reasonably priced neighborhood setting from someone who really likes to cook.”
If anyone needed evidence of Dincer’s passion, all they’d have to do is look at the menu. Of course, diner staples like omelets, deluxe open-faced sandwiches and egg and tuna salad are available, but what patrons have come to really enjoy over the years are the eight to 10 daily specials that run the gamut of Mexican meatballs, chicken stew and gazpachos, fried pork with plantains, and mushroom curried feta stir fry. There’s even beef tongue and lamb kidneys, which he says no one ever orders: “Sometimes we cook food no one likes.”
Dincer, who hails from Turkey, believes it’s likely his love for travel inspired many of his culinary ideas. It’s something he still does quite frequently. It allows him to give diners another view of himself by posting a number of travelogues and videos on Prairie Joe’s Facebook page and hanging photos upon his return, including a recent series where he took one of the restaurant’s stools with him across the country for some carefully curated portraits. “Everyone thought they were Photoshopped,” he jokes.
The topic of art gets the creative-minded Dincer looking more into the future, and it’s apparent he actually does have a plan. Soon, he’d like to put together a retrospective show of all of his landscape and abstract paintings and will also try out a monthly evening reading series to expand the options of what Prairie Joe’s can give back to the community. “I realize that in 25 years I maybe created a nice place for people to come in and feel comfortable,” he acknowledges, “and that makes me feel good.”
Prairie Joe’s is located at 1921 Central Street in Evanston, 847-491-0391, prairiejoes.com.