Ed Debevic's: 11 Facts About The Popular Chicago Diner

A restaurant where the waitstaff insults patrons on purpose sounds like a diner's nightmare. But when Ed Debevic's burst onto the chain restaurant scene in 1984, the kitschy-themed dining industry got a blast of goofy energy with a '50s style eatery with an edge. Suddenly, there were impromptu musical numbers and dancing on the counters. Theater kids could work and get paid while practicing their improv skills and taking out their frustrations — real or rehearsed — on their customers. With both feet in the past and tongue planted firmly in cheek, Ed Debevic's launched a legacy that lasted into the new millennium.

So if Ed Debevic's brought the 1950s to the 1980s, what's happening with this theatrical throwback burger joint in the 21st century? After a rough patch that saw the shuttering of all locations in the mid-2010s, Ed's made a return to snarky form in Chicago in 2021. Maybe the time was ripe for a restaurant where bad service is part of the experience, or maybe a new generation of Windy City theater kids needed a place to hone their sassy chops. Let's dig up the dish on this scrappy little diner that just won't go away.

1. Creator Rich Melman is a restaurant visionary

Ed Debevic's was the brainchild of restaurant savant Rich Melman, cofounder of Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants. Lettuce started in 1971 as a concept restaurant generator, with Ed Debevic's as one of the company's many formats. In 1988, Inc. Magazine referred to Melman as "a gastronomic Yoda" and described his eye for detail where the design of his restaurants was concerned. The article explained that, to provide a convincing 1950s diner feel of Ed Debevic's, Melman "hired the casting director from the TV series 'Alice' to help find the right kinds of people, and held auditions in which promising candidates played typical 1950s diner habitués." That's not the direction most restaurant owners might go. But Ed's isn't most restaurant owners.

With Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants turning a robust 50 years old in 2021, the company now claims more than 100 restaurants and about 7,000 employees. Melman's three children have taken leadership positions, stepping up to run a family company that includes Wildfire, M Burger, and Three Dots and a Dash, Chicago's popular contemporary tiki bar. Other restaurants in the company's deep portfolio may serve up saucy dishes that dazzle and delight, but Ed Debevic's is the only Melman creation to dole out sassy snark with every order.

2. The diner originated in Phoenix

If you search the annals of the internet, you'll discover that, although Rich Melman's version of Ed Debevic's was a Chicago baby, it wasn't the original Ed's. That honor belongs to the location in Phoenix, Arizona. A restaurateur named Lee Cohn, a friend of Melman's, launched the first Ed Debevic's in 1984. The Southwestern location was an icon to desert dwellers who loved the backtalk as much as the burgers. A marketing campaign for the restaurant launched a television ad that local '80s kids knew by heart, featuring a precocious tot adorably mispronouncing the name as "Eb-BABEBIC'S!" Some memories never fade, even when YouTube reminds us of the cringe factor.

Ed's was an Arizona landmark until the early 2000s, when it served its last snark burger to a public that had moved on to In-N-Out Burger and Five Guys. There's even a Facebook group for former employees to keep in touch and reminisce about the good ol' days slinging sass. The Arizona restaurant may be gone now, but the feisty spirit of the old-timey diner with an attitude lives on in the hearts of Phoenicians who experienced their own slice of the gnarly '50s, even if it happened in the grungy '90s.

3. The Chicago restaurant became the best-known location

When Rich Melman launched the Chicago version of Ed Debevic's in 1984, the retro diner found a new home. Locals and tourists alike filled the booths, and quirky waitstaff in vintage costumes berated them all equally. The "Eat and Get Out!" catch phrase became a philosophy, with Ed's bold name adorning bowling shirts, T-shirts and even matchbooks with charming aged graphics and a job application on the inside flap. These trinkets are part of the eBay ecosystem, only available as previously owned items now. They circulate as nostalgic diners rediscover their love for good food served with attitude, reminders of Chicago Ed's heyday, before artificially vintage things became authentically vintage.

Beyond Phoenix and Chicago, Ed Debevic's showed up in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. The chain never expanded throughout the U.S., but the Chicago Ed's carried on the tradition like no other Ed's could. It became such a part of the local landscape that YouTube outlet Family Travel recommended the diner as a fun Chicago destination for visitors eager to be gently abused as they eat.

4. Snarky service is part of the brand

For the unwitting diner who happens into Ed Debevic's without knowing what they're getting into, the first encounter can be a bit daunting. That's because at Ed's, bad customer service IS good customer service. The draw of unwarranted theatrical jibes being thrown by waitstaff traditionally expected to be doting and submissive brings howls from visitors. Though the food is casual diner quality, the immersive sense of performance is the main attraction for most guests. People come to Ed's to be verbally slapped by some of the most hilariously rude waitstaff in the restaurant industry. And the waitstaff get paid to do it.

A few former servers took their theatrics to a whole new level. Actors David Schwimmer and Mark Ruffalo both said they worked there at one time. Schwimmer said he was a roller-skating Romeo while Ruffalo played a character named Frankie.

Anyone who wasn't aware of the insulting nature of a visit to Ed's should do their research before going. There's plenty of evidence online. In 2015, a video showing a waitress at Ed's giving her patrons the business went viral for all the right reasons. The video has been viewed over 4 million times, and the patrons were not only in on the joke, they were also clearly entertained by the performance. Rude staff has been a staple at Ed's since the beginning, but somehow, the visual of a waitress giving guff to customers tickled the internet enough to catch fire.

5. The retro environment is a draw

Greasers and nerds, bobby-soxers and pin-up girls, tiki kitsch and diner chic — Ed Debevic's brings the whole vibe of the 1950s to life, right down to the chrome and neon accents. While retro-themed diners are nothing new, Ed's wholehearted embrace of the era's most vivacious personalities is unlike what Johnny Rockets or Five-and-Diner offer. The original locations took the thematic content so seriously that they had a costume and conduct guide listing rules for workers to follow. The roles of various cast members are outlined in great detail to provide a balanced troupe of players. Though the narration mimics the oddly out-of-touch tone of true mid-20th century instructionals, the content contains sincere guidelines to help performers create an immersive experience. Now that's dedication.

Not all patrons are keen on the visiting the rambunctious retro scene at Ed's, though. In 2000, reviewer Kyle Wagner writing for Westword noted that with all the work required by the crew to create the live atmosphere of a cartoonish take on 1950s diner culture, he had to "wonder why on earth anyone would choose to make his or her living this way." Nostalgia isn't for everyone.

6. There is no actual Ed Debevic

As unique and recognizable as the name is, many people might be surprised to learn that there is no actual Ed Debevic. Sure, if you check the website, you'll find a detailed account of Little Eddie Debevic and his longing to bring good diner food to the people of Chicago. He even achieved his dream in 1984, opening the first Ed Debevic's restaurant and striving to serve the world's smallest sundae without exception. It's an exciting adventure, filled with burgers and travels and sassy waitresses who inspire as much as they insult. But none of that is real, and only the truly gullible even bother to believe it.

In actuality, a man named Bill Higgins came up with the Ed Debevic moniker during a brainstorming session with Rich Melman. According to Melman, "It sounded like a guy who would be from Chicago. So we created this entire persona around what Ed would like — bowling trophies and '50s memorabilia." And thus, Ed Debevic was born, a nonexistent man whose name has become synonymous with food from the '50s and the waiters and waitresses who don't give a rat's patoot about customer service serving it up.

7. Locations closed in the mid-2000s

After more than three decades of serving up hash with a side of sass, the original Chicago location served its last malt. The diner was shuttered in October 2015, and by December of the same year, the building had been demolished. Reports of a 22-story high rise being built in its place only added insult to injury for the lowly patrons who would no longer be berated while ordering their meat loaf with wet fries. There was even an auction to offload beloved memorabilia.

What had gone so wrong that the original Windy City retro diner couldn't be salvaged? True, the Phoenix location had closed in the early 2000s, but the Chicago version of Ed Debevic's was a midwestern bastion of bad service and pretty okay food.

As it turned out, the owners of Ed's were already in search of a new location for a rebuild. No immediate mention was made of where that location might be, but just knowing that the end of Ed's wasn't truly the end was enough to stoke the fires of hope. Talk about a plot twist!

8. Ed's in Chicago reopened in 2021

A shiny new Ed Debevic's opened in Chicago in October 2021, nearly six years to the day after the original location closed its doors. Brought back to life by Bravo Restaurants, the relocated Ed's moved to a spot a mile north of Route 66, a fitting locale for an old-fashioned diner. With updated-but-still-retro interiors and the same sense of theatrical nostalgia, the Ed's that local diners had come to know and at least tolerate, if not love, had made a triumphant return. Diners who had gone without the verbal smackdown from grouchy attendants could make up for lost time. And waiters and waitresses who had bottled up so much performative animosity were free to vent their comical spleens while taking orders for root beer and onion rings once more.

Visitors to the grand re-opening were encouraged to learn that the same spunky spirit from the old restaurant resides in the new Ed's location. One reviewer raved about the BBQ pork sandwich and fries, and original waitstaff from Ed's earlier incarnation even returned to work for the occasion. Whether Bravo Restaurants will take Ed Debevic's beyond Chicago remains to be seen.

9. The restaurant embraces bad online reviews

Not all restaurants are eager to call out their own bad reviews. The fear of losing potential customers is enough to make most restaurant owners curry favor with their diners to make sure opinions remain high when it comes to the food, the atmosphere, and the customer service. But as a restaurant that has always bucked tradition, Ed Debevic's doesn't shy away from its bad reviews. In fact, the staff tends to revel in them. Online. In front of the whole world wide web. It's either the most ingenious way of dealing with negative press, or it's the worst idea in the history of people having ideas.

Ed Debevic's goes one step beyond simply embracing its bad reviews. Ed's has its outrageous waitstaff read these reviews online. And it features the link on its own website. Getting ahead of your critics and taking the air out of their balloon makes sense when your workers are paid to be unapologetically unappealing. But setting up a channel and using your bad reviews as a marketing strategy just might be the boldest move Ed's has ever made. And it fits perfectly with other pop culture tropes, like stars reading mean tweets about themselves.

10. Patrons have compared the service to another popular chain

It's reasonable to assume there was only one insult-heavy restaurant chain making patrons uncomfortable during their visits. But that is incorrect. Though beloved memories abound from Ed's visitors, there's a competitor for the snarky eatery crown. It's a smack-talking place called Dick's. And the name is no coincidence.

Dick's Last Resort is a national chain featuring obnoxious waitstaff serving bar-style food in an intentionally cheesy throwback atmosphere ... sound familiar? Reviews of Dick's are oddly reminiscent of Ed's own reviews, the greatest difference being the quality of the food. But both restaurants occupy the same space in the dining industry, which makes them a matched set when patrons search for the best restaurant with the worst service. And they usually mean that in a good way.

Unlike Ed Debevic's, there really is a Dick behind Dick's. The original owner was Dick Chase. Originally a film producer, Chase tried opening a chain of fine-dining establishments. When they failed, he threw caution to the other side of the spectrum and went lowbrow instead. It seems that the world of themed eateries with servers who don't like you could a thing. If you aren't failing up, you aren't doing it right.

11. It was iconic enough to rate a mention on the FX show 'The Bear'

As if being a beloved insult-style retro 1950s diner wasn't enough of an identity, Ed Debevic's is also iconic enough of a Chicago landmark to be a reference point for other restaurants. The restaurant in this instance happens to be the fictional Original Beef of Chicagoland, the setting for the hit Hulu series "The Bear." And the reference comes at the expense of Original Beef's new owner, Carmen "Carmy" Beazatto, when an investor points out that he made seed money for opening the restaurant with a return on his investment in the original Ed Debevic's. The restaurant business in the Windy City is a small circle, for sure.

Being a familiar and popular dining destination in a city as bustling with said destinations as Chicago puts Ed Debevic's in a coveted position, at a crossroads of being a beloved cartoonish restaurant and an iconic local landmark, even with its demise and resurrection. But to be mentioned as a moneymaker on a hit television series where the restaurant game takes centerstage moves Ed's into rarified pop culture air. Once you hit the streaming services, the snark gets real.