At Leo’s Lunchroom even a peasant can eat like a king. It’s where Donna Knezek serves up some of the best food in Chicago at rock-bottom prices. Unlike Wishbone with its cutesy chicken art on the walls, Leo’s isn’t a faux nostalgia-trip luncheonette but the real thing–beat-up, mismatched chairs with exposed stuffing, five tables and a long counter, no air-conditioning. I suppose you could consider the child’s rocking horse near the window extra seating, but it’s too low for anyone older than three. Knezek and her two partners hope to upgrade Leo’s interior when they can afford it. In the meantime they’ve at least removed that dingy refrigerator I kept bumping into on my way to the rest room.

During the day the menu consists of the usual luncheonette-type grub: hash, burritos, eggs, chili, salads, and sandwiches. Knezek only cooks at night; that’s when Leo’s turns into Cinderella at the ball. The menu expands to include dinner specials, which Knezek refers to as “hearty peasant fare.”

One country’s peasant food is another country’s ethnic adventure. For all I know, the Chinese are as bored with pon pon ji ($4), a cold appetizer of fragrant cellophane noodles and chicken strips delicately spiced with cilantro, as I am with buffalo wings. Fattoush ($3.25), a delightful combination of pita bread, tomatoes, and cucumbers, may be the mainstay of every Casbah salad bar. Knezek’s grilled Atlantic salmon ($9) with a lively Veracruz relish (tomatoes, caramelized onions, and green olives), served with sauteed potatoes, is exceptional and a bargain, as is the grilled lamb with skordalia ($8.25). The skordalia came as a delicious Greek surprise of cold whipped potatoes laced with mayonnaise and garlic, accompanied by sides of fattoush and grilled eggplant. The penne with tomato fennel sauce ($6.50) is perfection. Fennel and anise, which both taste like licorice, require a deft touch like Knezek’s. I’ve been places where I think the chef just sprinkled Good & Plentys into the pasta. All entrees, by the way, come with a green salad.

After Spy magazine’s Bunny Burger prank (they tricked PR firms into fighting for the chance to market ground rabbit on buns in little boxes with pink bunny ears), I never thought I’d recommend that anyone order rabbit again, but I’d bump off Thumper for Knezek’s savory Colombian rabbit stew ($9) simmered in a fragrant sauce of coconut milk, roasted tomatoes, achiote, and cilantro, and served with diced yucca roots sauteed in garlic and lime.

Knezek says she gets most of her inspiration from the hundreds of cookbooks she collects and the ethnic markets she haunts, absorbing information about the uses of exotic ingredients she can’t resist. All along her dream has been to open her own restaurant. After training at City, the chic, high-end LA place known for its innovative cuisine, she bought into Leo’s a couple of years ago, joining the two original owners who had opened the place about a year before.

Since Knezek doesn’t do the desserts, that’s when Leo’s Lunchroom turns back into a pumpkin. The fruit pies ($2.50-$3) are very ordinary and the coffee ($.85) is weak, but these are minor complaints. The service is wonderful (since there’s only one waiter per shift, and all the waiters have the same name, it’s safe to call him John). There’s also a tremendous tape collection ranging from Conway Twitty to classical, but you never know what you’re going to get. Beware, Friday night is disco.

Leo’s Lunchroom, 1809 W. Division, is open 8 AM to 10 PM Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, 8 AM to 11 PM Friday and Saturday, and closed Monday. Dinner starts at 6 PM. Leo’s doesn’t serve liquor, but you can bring your own. For more information, call 276-6509.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.