By Gretchen Livingston
Change is hard. That’s probably why for the entirety of their lives, at least those in which they ate solid food, my two now-grown children have ordered the same thing to eat at Prairie Joe’s: a sloppy Joe for one, and a grilled cheese for the other. The only thing that varied this routine was the terrible time that mashed potatoes were eliminated as a side for the sloppy Joe and fries had to stand in. Oh, and the milkshake. When sharing with me, it had to contain chocolate, so to avoid sharing the eldest would order the Green River shake.
Now we all must grapple with change as Prairie Joe’s, and the people who make it happen – Aydin, Diane, Yasmin, Joe and the cooks and waitstaff – will apparently depart the corner of Prairie and Central, where they have been for so long. How long exactly is but a distant memory for me, though I did live here for the previous iteration. I may have eaten at that version, but when PJ’s moved in, the decor and the food drew me and my family and I never looked back.
Some people favor breakfast at PJ’s, and we certainly had our share there, but really lunch is where all the interesting things happen. Alongside the sloppy Joe and the grilled cheese, I could order some combination of lentils, hummus, beets, eggplant, feta, beef patties and sticky rice. Or soup, but that was never quite enough for me. Or those sandwiches on the Greek bread, but that was too much for me, except for the Greek BLT now and then. There were an exciting few years when PJ was was open for dinner several days a week, allowing busy moms and dads to pop in on the way to or from some practice or another for a real meal.
What a surprise to discover that people you know well and consider friends had not yet been to PJ! They were confused by the window displays perhaps? Befuddled by the wide array of menu choices? Too busy exploring south Evanston? Whatever the reason for the oversight, when I met a friend for lunch at PJ at my recommendation they too became fans.
Of course we have fancier spots to eat in Evanston, including places with white tablecloths, but they cannot provide the same satisfaction as the PJ’s experience. That experience is about the food for sure, but also about the people you see and interact with there: the neighbor who meets her friends weekly; the regulars who sit at the counter; the families with small children; the teachers from Haven; the groups of Haven students who come for shakes on half days, at least when school is in person; the person new to PJ’s who wanders in and looks around with a confused expression.
The ambience matches the food; eclectic cannot begin to sum it up. Artwork and displays created or collected by Aydin, interesting music and interpretations of holidays never seen before combine to make PJ’s the most comfortable spot in town, even when sitting on slightly uncomfortable seats.
I know I am not the oldest customer of PJ’s, as counted by age or years visited. I did eat there often enough to be allowed to leave at least once without paying, having forgotten my wallet. (I settled later, though I think Diane would have preferred that I pop to the bank across the street and return immediately for payment, the usual suggestion for those who come without cash.)
In a bad parenting moment, I once (OK, really twice) left something behind – a blood glucose testing meter for a child with diabetes. Diane held it for me, knowing exactly who it belonged to, and called me. Perhaps Prairie Joe’s is one of the best examples of the importance of weak ties. People who are at the periphery of our lives can have more importance than we realize. Right up until we realize they might be going away.
It was always difficult when the PJ’s gang would take a well-deserved vacation, usually in August, and we would await their return. The vacation could be permanent this time. Change is still hard, especially when the loss is so much more than a sloppy Joe and a grilled cheese.