The Austin Island is a tiny pocket of bungalows and three-flats surrounded on four sides by Cicero, Oak Park, the Ike, and a bleak industrial stretch of Roosevelt Road. In this struggling neighborhood, the bright, shiny Depot–a classic American diner in a rehabbed vintage space–is quickly becoming a beacon of good chow and community spirit.

Started by partners Robert Nava and James Perino (of the Signature Room and Spago, respectively) and open just a month, the Depot does a knockout job with a focused menu that’s drawing buzz and a crowd–eaters from as far away as Lake Forest have been driving 45 minutes each way to check out the house-made biscuits and gravy, fresh doughnuts, and red velvet cake. Raised in Brooklyn, Nava also offers egg creams (which, as some Chicagoans may know, contain seltzer, milk, and syrup but no egg or cream), and also outstanding renditions of basics like chicken noodle soup, club sandwiches, and chili.  

Nava says he digs the performance art aspect of diner cooking, where everything is made out in the open and in your face. “I like performing. People in the diner are able to see everything. We don’t have a spring door separating the kitchen from the eating area. There’s nothing up my sleeve. It’s real meat and potatoes. I like that, and I think customers appreciate that. It also forces us to be on our toes.”