NEAR WEST SIDE — Throughout its three-quarters of a century on West Madison Street, the Palace Grill has been featured on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," been visited by Stanley Cup-toting Blackhawks three times, and was the restaurant then-Vice President Al Gore took Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to in the latter's search of a classic American breakfast.
It thrived when Madison Street was home to tony nightclubs, and survived riots when the area was was regarded as "skid row." The eatery also went 30 years without ever closing its doors once — back when it was open 24 hours a day.
Now, as the restaurant enters its 75th year at 1408 W. Madison St., its owners are trying to decide the best way to celebrate.
“Seventy-five years in business is really an honor for any business, let alone a restaurant," said owner George Lemperis, 65. "There’s a lot of history here. It’s a cool place."
Lemperis tentatively has scheduled a celebration for July 5, and may set up a tent outside to serve food with a proceeds going to charity, but plans are still up in the air.
What the restaurant has settled on is offering anniversary-themed deals this year, like its famous hash browns for 75 cents all day on Mondays, along with coffee, tea and pop for the same rock-bottom price. Other 75-cent Monday specials include pancakes (from 6 to 7:50 a.m.), cheeseburgers (3-5 p.m.) and cake (7:50-9 p.m.). The Palace Grill are also offering all-you-can-eat soup and salad for $7.50, from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays.
Best known for breakfast — especially the hash browns — the Palace Grill originally opened as part of the DeMars Grill chain, which had about 25 locations in Chicago. It was one of many restaurants in the 1400 block of West Madison Street and consisted only of stool seating at the counter.
“In 1938, Madison Street was the Rush Street of Chicago," Lemperis explained. "All the clubs were here, and people would come from all over the world to come to these clubs."
It became known as the Palace Grill in 1950 and has been in the Lemperis family since 1955, back when a customer could buy a hamburger for just $10 cents.
George Lemperis’ great-uncle and cousins — George, Mike and Gus Alpogianis — originally ran the restaurant, and it’s since been handed down from generation to generation. George and his father, Pete, took over in 1978 and operated for years with no menus.
The restaurant used to be open 24 hours a day and didn't close a single time over a 30-year span, until 1968, when riots and fires destroyed much of the surrounding neighborhood.
Mike and Gus Alpogianis, who were the owners at the time, stayed open to serve the firefighters and maintain the business, but eventually needed to close for a few days.
The restaurant has been popular with the firefighters and police ever since.
“This is the safest restaurant in the city,” said George Lemperis, who never considered closing the restaurant, even as the neighborhood deteriorated in the 1970s. “The neighborhood has done a complete 360 since 1938.”
George Lemperis has been the heart of the Palace Grill for 35 of its 75 years. Known to most as “George From the Palace,” customers repeatedly greet him with a hug or handshake.
“He’s what makes this place," his daughter Christina Lemperis, 22, said. He’ll make you feel like you’ve known each other for years.”
George Lemperis spoke enthusiastically about all of the historic moments at his restaurant, including when Gore brought Chernomyrdin to the eatery.
But he noted that it’s the regular customers who create the sociable atmosphere.
“This is not a normal restaurant. People go out of their way to come here. It’s like a cult,” Lemperis said.
His daughter Christina, a recent graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, plans to represent the fourth generation to run the family business.
“All my life I’ve always wanted to work here and do what Dad does,” she said.
Her plans include expanding the catering and private event side of the business, and possibly getting their famous hash browns carried in grocery stores. But the friendly scene at the Palace Grill won’t ever change, she added.
“People come here when they’re stressed out. If you have a bad day, you go to the Palace,“ she said. “People come here to feel better.”