Known for its motto “See Your Food,” which describes how customers can watch their food prepared right before their eyes, Valois Restaurant is a cash-only, cafeteria-style eatery and a staple in Chicago’s culturally diverse Hyde Park neighborhood. It has a wide array of breakfast and lunch options to choose from, such as sweet and fluffy pancakes, specialty hot sandwiches, and the Mediterranean omelet, a favorite of former President Barack Obama, who continues to visit Valois on trips home to Chicago.
Valois — pronounced “Valoyz” — has been in business since 1921, when William Valois, a French-Canadian immigrant, opened the restaurant at its first location on 55th Street and Harper Avenue. It’s now located at 1518 E. 53rd Street, where it moved after the Argiris family took over in 1970. Spiros Argiris is the current owner.
Valois has not changed much internally over the years, and that is what keeps the customers loyal. They can go in and expect the same comfortable atmosphere, the same familiar service and the same fantastic food every time. Two entry doors open into this huge restaurant, and savory and sweet smells of fried bacon and freshly brewed coffee waft through the air. To the right, there are a mass of tables and chairs filled with happy diners enjoying plates of food. To the left, a short pathway with wall art displaying some of Chicago’s landmarks leads to the order counter. The extensive menu is large enough to be visible from the door, so diners usually know what they are having before they reach the counter. This process allows Valois to maintain its prompt service.
Valois was already known throughout Chicago — former Mayor Harold Washington was a twice-a-day regular — but Obama, a Hyde Park resident since the 1980s, brought national and international attention to the restaurant after his presidential election in 2008. He and his family were frequent and satisfied Valois customers.
As Valois enters its second century, manager Gianni Colamussi shares insights about the familial culture of the restaurant, its challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, and his thoughts about the historic restaurant’s future.
Eater: How long have you worked at Valois and what about the environment keeps you here?
Gianni Colamussi: I have been here for over 12 years. From the work aspect, I just love the people around this neighborhood. It’s so eclectic. It’s a combination of every socio-economic class, all different ethnicities and what really encapsulates Chicago. I love the interaction with the people. You can serve two gentlemen who have been coming here for over 60 years and in the same line, someone who’s eating here for the first time, so I just love that feeling. I love the ambiance here and everyone is so personable. I enjoy that I can talk to anyone from a chiropractor to a celebrity. They all love hanging out here at Valois.
Being in business for 100 years is huge. How did you all celebrate that milestone?
So because of the pandemic, we didn’t do anything to celebrate. A lot of people are still nervous and scared to come in like they used to and it didn’t really feel like the best time to celebrate. We’re hoping that this year will make up for that.
I have been coming here for 20 years this year, and Valois has always had the same reliable staff; the same great, affordable food; and the same welcoming atmosphere. How did you all keep that same vibe and energy throughout the pandemic?
It was tough. And it was touch and go. Management had to take some low-selling items off of the menu and let go of some people, which was very unfortunate. We ended up switching to a breakfast- and lunch-only restaurant [and] we had to lay our night crew off. So now we open at 6 a.m. and close at 3 p.m. Thankfully, we’ve had great support from our customers and the staff you see here today that have stuck around, they are extremely grateful to have been able to work through the pandemic. They were able to make ends meet, and that’s where the spirit stays alive.
What steps did you take to stay in business?
Let me just say this: The appreciation that I have for the people of Hyde Park and surrounding areas is tremendous. It’s incredible that even as we’re sitting here, I’m looking at all of these different faces of people who have been coming here for so many years supporting us that my appreciation for them is deep and it touches my heart. People were struggling and they still came into Valois. Business was down 90 percent, and our staff was basically working for free. The restaurant was kept open for the staff, who needed their jobs, and for the community, who loved the place. The customers have been there for us for 100 years, and we wanted to be there for them during these tough times. Sometimes we offered free stuff and we still had our takeout options, so we fought hard to maintain and stay open. We made it through thanks to the determination and passion of the staff and the support of the community.
The Barack Obama specials have been a major selling point. Did business pick up when his favorite items were added as specials to the menu?
We did pretty good prior to and business was really strong before he was coming in, mostly because of the community who grew up here and the people who went to school in the neighborhood, like yourself. The Obama specials brought along a different clientele. Not people who used to live here and come back every now and then, but new people from different cities, states, and countries such as New York, Florida, and Japan. It was so nice to see and it was a good feeling. We never had any international exposure until Obama, but we are well-known. Politicians come and shake hands here. Our location is historic and now our restaurant, with 100 years of service, is historic.
What is the plan for Valois for the next 100 years?
As you can see, we pride ourselves in keeping things consistent and that is the key. Hopefully that will keep Valois running successfully. I don’t know if I’ll be here for 100 years, but I plan on being here for the bulk of it.