I’ve lived two miles from Big Al’s Diner for 20 years and during that time the place has been a reliable source of comfort. Summer Saturdays aren’t the same without a visit to the North Union Farmers Market at Shaker Square followed by a hearty breakfast at Big Al’s on Larchmere. In winter, when the thought of doing one more dirty dish is too much to bear, we head to the diner. The rest of the year, when the job takes me to one chef-driven bistro after another, it's Big Al’s that I crave.
Except for Covid-related closures, Big Al’s has been busy since the day it opened in 1994. And before that, if you tack on its years as the original Chuck’s Diner, before that infamous 24-hour haunt decamped to Lee Road. When it did, longtime cook Al Windsor took over, changed the name and fortified his position as one of the neighborhood’s most enduring and indispensable constituents.
At Big Al’s, all are welcome. Over the years, I’ve spied politicians, media celebs, sports stars, cops, judges and lawyers, all waiting in line for a table like the rest of us. Sure, every good diner is democratic, but this one’s location on the Cleveland-Shaker border – blocks from HUD housing to the west and some of the wealthiest families in the city to the east – makes it all the more egalitarian.
“Somehow, someway they end up here together,” Windsor says. “It’s a true melting pot.”
Windsor has cooked for an Ohio attorney general, U.S. rep and three Cleveland mayors, but it was a local chef who introduced Big Al’s to the rest of the country. On an episode of the Food Network’s “Best Thing I Ever Ate,” Michael Symon, who was living in Shaker at the time, called the diner’s corned beef hash "magic on a plate."
“I was so proud, it was unreal,” Windsor recalls. “He’s the Iron Chef! They must have shown it 50 times over the years. After it aired, I’ve had someone from every state in the union come in. Every state.”
That corned beef hash, eggs and toast ($10.99) is every bit as good as Symon says, but my money always lands on the #12 ($8.75), soul-satisfying sausage gravy-covered biscuits with over-easy eggs and home fries. As with most items at Big Al’s, the portion is such that finishing the entire plate is an aspirational endeavor. The omelets here are overstuffed, the pancakes flop over the edge of the plate and the pecan waffles are the size of wagon wheels. Lunch beckons with a rock-solid patty melt and fries platter.
Windsor estimates that he flies through 500 dozen eggs and 400 pounds of spuds per week – and that’s being open just six hours a day. A bewildering amount of those orders leave the restaurant in the form of carry-out, which is a relatively new phenomenon that emerged during the height of the pandemic.
“I’m doing more carry-out than I ever did,” Windsor states. “It’s like the icing on the cake.”
Windsor admits that he needs to do a better job curbing those orders on hectic weekends, when wait times for dine-in customers can stretch beyond the norm. Like all restaurants these days, Big Al’s is down a cook and a few servers, he notes.
After decades of abuse, the building wheezed from the neglect of a miserly landlord, but grace arrived in the form of a neighborhood benefactor who not only purchased the building, but also undertook an interior and storefront renovation project that lifted the entire property. That capital improvement seems to mesh with what’s taking place in the neighborhood as a whole.
“The neighborhood has completely changed,” says Windsor. “When I started there was a car stolen every week. Now they’re building apartments and it’s more trendy. But the diner’s been through it all.”
So has Al, who is 67 years old, has been working in restaurants since he was 14 and is in dire need of a new hip. He has help in the form of a hardworking son, but Windsor knows the job is not for everybody and that the future of Big Al’s Diner is anything but certain.
“It’s busy but you have to work for it,” he says. “It’s very hard work, very hard work. Especially as the owner. You have to get greasy, you gotta be dirty. Until I was able to hire a cook, I went to work when it was dark and I came home when it was dark.”
I, for one, can’t imagine life without Big Al’s.
Big Al’s Diner
12600 Larchmere Blvd., Cleveland