“His assistant came in and said, ‘Al Roker will be here shortly,’” owner Harry Lile recalls. Minutes later, Roker’s chauffer-driven car pulled to the curb.
“He was real personable, just like on TV,” Lile says. “I made him a good sandwich, ham on a poppy-seed Kaiser and a bowl of split-pea soup.”
Roker, who makes no secret of his zesty appetite, gave Lile’s a high-profile plug when he was back on the set in New York, saying, “I had the best ham sandwich in my life in Dearborn, Michigan.”
The only remaining evidence of Lile’s fleeting brush with network-level celebrity is a framed glossy of Roker on the diner wall.
All else is back to the basics.
Basic is a recipe that has served Lile’s well. Inside the small box of a building across from Dearborn City Hall, government suits mingle with UAW jackets. “Hi, Sweetie,” one regular says to a waitress. “You know what you need in this place? You need a place to take a nap.”
Then he orders from a menu with refreshingly minimal options: ham sandwich, corned-beef sandwich, turkey sandwich, American or Swiss cheese, bun or rye. The soups are bean or split pea. Orders are filled in seconds and placed on a red cafeteria-style tray.
Over the years, Lile’s has attracted a few other high-profile diners. Steve Yzerman is one, the owner says. The late Dearborn Mayor Michael Guido was a regular, and the late Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young stopped by.
“Coleman Young came in about 15 years ago,” Lile says. “He used to go to our place in Detroit, and one day he told his driver to keep going out Michigan Avenue until he found us.”
Harry Lile’s parents opened their first ham sandwich shop at Michigan and Grand River in Detroit in 1961. They added a second location on Michigan Avenue in Dearborn and later sold the Detroit spot.
Lile credits the restaurant’s longevity and loyalty to a simple recipe. “You have to have a quality product at a good price, and you gotta give people a little more than they can eat, not like a sandwich you can get anywhere or make at home,” he says. “I want people to remember us.”