From dusk till dawn: 12 hours spent in a Merry Ann’s diner

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From dusk till dawn: 12 hours spent in a Merry Ann’s diner

By Features Staff Report

Merry Ann’s Diner sits on Gregory Street in Urbana. The old-fashioned diner’s walls are decorated with 1940s memorabilia, retro Pepsi advertisements and it features nostalgia-inducing checkered linoleum floors. Breakfast food – the most popular section of the menu – is served all day, but lunch and dinner options also exist for customers to order.

The diner is one of the only restaurants in Campustown open 24/7, the other being the original Merry Ann’s, located on Neil Street, making it a popular destination for late-night bites. On Saturday, the Features Staff documented the busiest times at the diner, read about all that happened during the night,

below.

Brian Bauer
An order of food sits on the counter ready to be sent out.

6 p.m.

The diner is quiet and nearly empty, with only a group of three men at a booth and one man sitting alone. Ariana Grande is playing on the digital jukebox, the ambiance is light. Only two employees, one cook and one waitress, are working at the moment.

Kristian Chehaiber, junior in Engineering, has just come from the Electrical and Computer Engineering Building and said he loves Merry Ann’s because the food is cheap.

As it gets darker outside, more people are coming in to eat dinner, and parties of one are common.

Brian Bauer
Mercedes Hart takes the orders of Sarah Pokorny and Emmy Smith.

7 p.m.

The Jonas Brothers’ most recent album “Happiness Begins,” plays throughout the restaurant, and the airy-pop music seems to contradict the vintage feel, but mirrors the youthful atmosphere.

Chris Steininger, senior in Social Work, comes to Merry Ann’s once a week, after a trip to the library. He prefers Merry Ann’s to other 24 hour food options in the area. 

“Here I eat in ten minutes,” he said.

Friends Justin Phourchau, Jessica Krawiec, Wen Li, seniors in LAS and Everett Underwood senior in Engineering have been regulars at Merry Ann’s since their freshman year at the University. They are fans of the burgers because they like to “maximize calories.”

Brian Bauer
Chad Wilkins (not pictured) operates the griddle and cooks an array of breakfast foods.

8:00 p.m.

The restaurant is still quiet, with sounds of receipts being printed, cutting through the beat of rap music over the speakers. Soft chatter is interrupted by clinks and clanks of dishware once in a while.

Matt Gorlewski, freshman at Illinois State University, chooses a Brockhampton song to play on the digital juke box. He is in town visiting his girlfriend, a student at the University, but still does not understand the appeal of the University to prospective students.

“U of I is just a very large school, and it doesn’t feel very welcoming to me, at least,” Gorlewski said. “I got a completely different vibe at ISU. It’s a smaller campus, easier to get around.” 

Lauren Blankenberger, freshman in Education; Sofia Dietrich, freshman in LAS and Jack Allen, freshman in Engineering, all stop in for the diner’s specialty milkshakes.

8:23 pm — Henry Markarian, freshman in Engineering, has been to Merry Ann’s twice and ordered a BLT tonight. He listens to “Mercy Falls” by CharlestheFirst.

“It’s good vibes music,” he said about his song choice. “It feels like background music, it feels like good-time passing music when you’re waiting for your BLT and fries.” 

Brian Bauer
Adam Tlustochowski and Makennah Koos wait while their friend Owen pays at the counter.

9:00 p.m.

The voices of pop princesses like Demi Lovato and Little Mix fill the room.

A group of international students gather to meet once a week, and group members Jose Manuel Vidaller Segura, graduate student in Engineering from Madrid, Spain and Eduardo Darriba Velado, graduate student in economics from Bilbao, Spain, were told by a fellow international student to give Merry Ann’s a try.

Over burgers, they shared their hopes for the year ahead. 

“Spanish people are really good, but I have that in Spain,” Segura said. “I don’t want to spend my year speaking in Spanish.” 

However, he said the community of international students at the University is a strong one.

“Maybe the international students are more friendly with us because they’re in the same situation,” Segura said. “You Americans have your own lives here, your own plans. You don’t want to do your own trips because you’ve been to places, you know?”

As far as food goes in America, Darriba had some complaints.  

“I’m being forced everyday to eat junk food,” he said. “I prefer eating in healthy way.” 

The diversity in America has surprised both Segura and Darriba.

“If you go to Spain, 80–90% of people are Hispanics,” Segura said. “But here, because you have so many races, you can find people from everywhere.”

As the hour comes to an end, there is a shift change. The smell of cigarette smoke fills the air, and burgers constantly sizzle on the grill. The sound of crunching ice means the diner staple milkshakes are being made. 

John Jonathan tries to keep cool while working behind the counter.

10:00 p.m.

Ed Sheeran’s melodies play over the speakers, but, as the restaurant becomes more crowded and filled with customer chatter, the music changes to rap and echoes the atmosphere.

Emmy Smith, freshman in FAA, has a different request for the juke box.

“If I could play one song on the digital jukebox, it would be “Dance with Somebody” by Whitney Houston,” she said. “We were jamming to that earlier.”

11:00 p.m.

People roll into the diner from Sasha Velour’s Smoke and Mirrors across the street at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Nearly every booth in the restaurant is occupied, and the music transitions to Rap and R&B. 

Nena Rohaidzam, sophomore in FAA, sits in one of these booths. She said she used to come to Merry Ann’s often last year, around 3 a.m. to drink coffee and stay up late.

“I can’t do that anymore because I’m broke,” Rohaidzam said. 

Her friend Olivia Benge, sophomore in LAS, sits in the booth with her. Benge frequented the diner last year as well. They both order a plate of fries and milkshakes. 

“I’m not ready to commit to a full meal yet,” Rohaidzam said. “It’s too early.”  

They both agreed that the one song they’d love to hear on the jukebox would be “What’s New Pussycat” by Tom Jones, after their favorite comedian John Mulaney.

Brian Bauer
Frank Whisman sits and waits for his coffee.

Midnight

Yuxuan Li, senior in Business, forgot to eat dinner because he was studying. He said many students come to Merry Ann’s from Engineering for a late night bite.

“I’ve been here for four years, so I come here quite often,” he said. “It’s a place for students who have a lot of work to come in late and eat. It’s probably one of the only places that is 24 hours. This diner has really cheap food, so even though there’s many good places around here, no other diners can compete with it.”

A customer skates around the restaurant in Heelys, a throwback to an early 2000s shoe trend.

More and more students come in with their backpacks. The music is drowned out by groups of people chatting over french fries, milkshakes and waffles.

Frank Whisman from Bloomington used to drive Semi-trucks for Walmart and went to the original Merry Ann’s in Champaign. Now retired, and living in Saint Joseph, Whisman is used to the late-night dinners from his career.

“I order the same thing every night,” he said. “Coffee, toast and jam. And it never gets old.”

Juin Bicilio, one of the cooks, said he’s known Whisman for 14 out of the 15 years he’s worked there. He said Whisman is one of his favorite customers.

Brian Bauer
A table of plates left by customers wait to be cleaned off the table.

1:00 a.m.

There seems to be a lull in the speed of customers coming into the diner, but there is a good balance of the post-bar and casual dinner crowd. Everyone seems to have a friendly vibe and Merry Ann’s seems like the only place where people, no matter their background or political views, can co-exist without judgement.

Waitress Mercedes Hart was hired at Merry Ann’s in April 2019. Her craziest story was that in the summer, a group of students would come in to ballroom dance when there was no one here.” She said the students would put their own music on from the digital jukebox and dance around.

Nick Gao, a senior in Architecture, is a Merry Ann’s regular and comes at least three times a week.

I live upstairs and I come because it’s always open,” he said. I don’t even look at the menu, because I order the same things every time — a hamburger or omelette.”

2:00 a.m.

The diner is pretty busy, contrasting the previous lull last hour. Large groups of college-aged people occupy most of the booths; however, there isn’t a wait for a table.

Nathaniel Anleitner, senior in LAS, comes to Merry Ann’s at least once a week because the meetings for his RSO, the Social Gaming Club, usually run late at night on Saturdays. He orders a cookies and cream milkshake and sits with his friend.

Jada Siegert, freshman in Social Work, and her sister, Ang, just finished their first-ever meal at Merry Ann’s and agreed they’ll come back for sure. Jada ordered a classic burger, while Ang opted for the popular chocolate chip pancakes.

3:00 a.m.

New diners are filtering into, not coming from events, but just looking for food late at night. Three customers have their laptops out. Many of the diners eat in smaller groups, than those who filled the diner earlier in the night.

By 3:30, only one cook and one waitress remain on the floor tending to the guests. At one point, the waitress is carrying a plate with a sandwich on it which she bites into, having some of the diner’s food for her own breakfast.

Pietra, a junior in ACES, works on her laptop with her feet resting on the opposite booth. The past couple of trips she had made to the diner was just with friends, but tonight she has settled in for a long night of work.

4:00 a.m.

The music has changed to Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3 (All My Friends Are Dead)” as six customers sit spread around different tables. As three of them leave, the waitress makes a shift from night to day, telling them to Have a good morning.” She takes the chance to clear dishes and table, turning down the volume of the music as she goes.

At 4:15 a group of four men walk in and sit down at a booth together.

Alex Guan said, I was working on my lab for hella long, and then I kind of got bored working on it, so I wanted to get something to eat.”

The pancakes schmack,” Ryan Albis chimed in, another member of the dining group.

Later in the night, two other men walk in and recognize the group of four. They start chatting about the lab they both seem to be taking breaks from working on, before the two new men order burgers, waffles and hash browns to go.

Another pair of guys, David Tingle and Terik Coleman, sit down at a booth in the back. Both of them are sophomores from Allen Hall, still undecided about what exactly they want to study. They say this place serves as a destressor for them.

The waitress pulls salt and pepper shakers from the tables to refill and wipe down.

Brian Bauer
Mercedes Hart takes a moment’s rest to eat.

5:00 a.m.

Waitress Dana deVries has been working the floor since 10 p.m. last night. She has been working at this location for about a year now, usually working the overnight shifts during the week.

It’s crazy, especially on a college campus, but it’s fun. It can be stressful, but it’s fun,” she said.

At 5:20 only Pietra remains in the diner, still working on her laptop. At one point, she switches booths to move closer to an outlet.

At 5:30, two workers from Jimmy Johns come in and sit down. David and Alyssa are regulars who come in several mornings a week after finishing the closing shift. They have been together for about three and a half months.

David has been coming into Merry Ann’s for four years now, almost every morning at 5:30 a.m. like clockwork.

He shared a story from three years ago when a couple of guys came in to clean the grill and pulled out the hose. They pushed the grill back into place, and when they went to light it, a giant fire started.

The diner is chilly and fairly empty now. All the tables have been wiped down, the salt and pepper shakers returned and ready for the next set of customers.

One man comes in alone, sits down, and orders eggs and toast. His name is Nico, a sophomore studying bioengineering.

Nico was at a rugby party the night before, fell asleep on the couch, before waking up around 5:00 a.m. and deciding he needed food.

There’s definitely something comforting in knowing that somebody else is going to be more haggard than you, so you don’t have to feel bad about walking in, looking like hell,” he said.

He said the diner makes him feel connected to his mom when he misses her, because of the time she spent as a waitress in a diner for a lot of her youth.

Brian Bauer
Collage of Merry Ann’s diners and employees.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misspelled Dana deVries’ name. The Daily Illini regrets this error. 

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