EAST GARFIELD PARK — At the crack of dawn each day, a steady stream of bus drivers flows in and out of a still-dark diner in East Garfield Park for a quick bite to eat.
Pete’s Place, located near a CTA depot on the corner of Van Buren Street and Kedzie Avenue, has been serving breakfast to loyal bus drivers since 1954.
"It's like walking into your own family's kitchen," said regular Max Woodruff.
Woodruff 54, has been eating at Pete’s for more than 15 years.
“Good food, good service, it’s just a good time," he said.
Most customers, dressed in CTA uniforms, wander in by themselves and sit on a row of stools next to the countertop, instantly chatting up cooks and their early morning neighbors. In the back of the narrow restaurant, a jukebox blasts Motown, jazz, gospel and favorites by Ray Charles.
Since it opened, Pete’s Place has been serving up the same home-style recipes for eggs sunny side up, grits, pancakes, and steak and potatoes.
D’Andre London, 25, first came to Pete’s as a child with his family, and now makes an almost-daily stop during his workday as a city bus operator.
“I come before work, after work, during work,” said London, laughing. “A couple more minutes here and I’ll become a stool.”
Pete’s Place owner Moses Tillawi spends his day walking the length of the diner countertop and jostling with customers.
“This guy,” said Tillawi, pointing at Woodruff, “I’ve been trying to get rid of him for years!”
“Then stop serving these grits,” Woodruff replied.
Tillawi said “consistent customers” like Woodruff and London drive Pete’s business.
“If one of our regulars can’t come in the morning, they’ll call and say ‘don’t expect me today,’” he said.
The employees are familiar faces, too.
“I started waiting tables here when I was 8 years old,” said Ron Nicks, aka Pee Wee, as he worked the grill. Pee Wee, a nickname he’s lived with his entire life, said working at Pete’s was a family affair. Growing up, his family lived in the apartment above Pete’s, and two of his brothers also waited tables and worked the grill.
“It’s not about the money,” said Pee Wee, 44. “When I started, I made a cheeseburger, fries and a quarter.”
Before taking over Pete’s from its namesake seven years ago, Tillawi owned a sub shop in the neighborhood. He said the first time he visited Pete’s, he thought there was something unique about the place.
“You’d be dumb to change anything about it,” Tillawi said.