The famed Palace Grill on Madison, opened 1938, is currently in its 75th anniversary year. Throughout the decades it's grown from a "skid row diner" to one where many celebrities and politicians walk through its doors, including Oprah Winfrey (it's a stones throw from Harpo Studios), Al and Tipper Gore, and the Blackhawks.
The Lemperis family has held ownership since 1955 and George, who grew up in West Rogers Park, has worked there for 35 years. 17 years ago he expanded it from a 19-stool diner to the full-service restaurant it is today. One thing hasn't changed, however—the food. Lemperis chatted about the changes, his hours, his opinions on new diners, and more.
Were you always in the restaurant business?
I was not, I was in college and the restaurant was offered to my father and my father was actually looking for a business partner. My mother said, "Why don't you just take (me) as a partner?" He didn't want me because I really didn't have restaurant experience per se. He agreed to let me come in with him, and it's ironic because from day one I was the one who ran that restaurant. I was the one who took over, did all the ordering, paid the bills. My father passed away 20 years ago.
What was that like for you in the beginning?
It was hard. I made a lot of mistakes, and mistakes like that cost you money. But you learn from your mistakes. The first 20 years, I was putting in 80-to-100-hour weeks, getting up at quarter-to-three in the morning, I worked until 5:00, 6:00, 7:00, whenever I had to be there, and I got up the next day and did it all again.
Does that have something to do with the diner business? You were a 24-hour diner, right?
From 1938-1968 the restaurant never closed one day. Then in 1968, my cousin started closing it at 3:00 in the afternoon and they started taking Sundays off, but now we're going back the other way again. We're open seven days a week again. At one point we might go 24 hours a day again, but 24 hours a day is a real pain.
How has the customer base changed since you started?
My customers were 85 percent African American when took over. That being said, I've had the greatest customers over the years, the most wonderful people. People in the neighborhood, they're just nice people. Now I get people from all walks of life coming in here.
Has the menu changed much since you started?
Yes and no. I've added things to the menu, but the same ham and eggs that I was serving people when I took over in the late 70s is really the same ham and eggs that people get now. The same omelettes are there. We the same hot beef sandwich with real mashed potatoes. I've added things, but really for the most part, the menu is pretty much the same.
What do you think of the new diner trend?
I wish them success, I would never want anybody to fail. They are a little frou-frou for me. They're not diners. It's a diner concept with a different take on food. But whatever works. I do know a lot of these places, they open up for three or four years and next thing you know, people move on and go somewhere else. My business has been here for 75 years, just stereotypical American comfort food. We've served the same fish for 70 years.
Some people talk about how you were a Skid Row diner. What was it really like back then?
It was rough. We had police officers that would eat there, truck drivers, people from the neighborhood. And we would close at 3:00 in the afternoon because it was just a little too rough. We'd go in, we'd make our money and get out. As time went on, the neighborhood got better. Mayor Daley did a superb job in the City of Chicago. Turned the City of Chicago into a world-class city. The transformation of the neighborhood is incredible.
What have you done with your restaurant specifically to withstand years of rough times in the neighborhood?
We completely remodeled the restaurant, it was actually gutted. All we had left was three brick walls. You've gotta be clean, you've gotta be good at what you do. You've got to give people good service, and that's important.
Would you ever have imagined when you first started that your business would become what it is now?
Probably not. But it could only have gotten better. The neighborhood was as quiet and depressed as anywhere, it was bad. But never in my wildest imagination would I have expected to see what I see in the neighborhood now.
So many celebrities and politicians come in here. What do you attribute that to?
The people really like me, I've become friends with a lot of these people. And it's a very unique restaurant. Everybody knows each other and people eat there just about every day. People there have developed friendships from eating at the Palace Grill. The Palace Grill is a destination.
What's the one story about the restaurant that you tell people?
One of the great days was three weeks ago when the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. We had a huge party with 250-300 people here. Afterward, everyone was outside, the media was outside filming everybody.
The first time the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, the cup was here on three occasions, I got to hoist the cup in the Palace. Nobody gets to hoist the cup, it's just for the players. The Bulls never come down here because they're only down here for games.
Would you ever consider a different job?
Well I'm 55 years old; I'm looking for retirement (laughs). This is the only job I've had since I left college. My daughter is now joining me, which is a breath of fresh air in my business.
Somebody asked me one day when I'm going to retire and before I can even finish, my wife interjected, "He will never leave that restaurant. That restaurant is his whole life." And I stopped and I thought about it, and I go, "You know what? She's probably right. I don't think I could ever leave that restaurant."
Would you ever consider changing anything about the restaurant at this point?
No, absolutely not.
What do you think of how diners are doing nowadays?
The diner is pretty much a dying breed. Especially our concept where we have the cooking line in front, it's an obsolete system. It works for me to a point, but I'm getting to the point now that I'm so busy and I can't serve my customers fast enough, and that's a problem.
How long do people have to wait for a table?
Last year I added another 40 seats, so when I'm really busy I have another 40 people to serve. But in the last couple weeks, the food hasn't come out like it should, and it's a problem.
And your relatives own Kappy's (in Morton Grove)?
My cousins own Kappy's Restaurant, they owned [Palace Grill] before me. Palace was first, and they left to go to Kappy's. They became so successful, they now own all of the America's Dogs, and a couple restaurants in Navy Pier.