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Breakfast standards and so much more

Valois Cafeteria a community gathering spot since 1921

By Charles J. Johnson, Tribune reporter

April 18, 2013

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For Spiros Argiris and Gus Sellis, the story of their lives is written on the walls.

Argiris points around the room at the Valois Cafeteria's murals: the Museum of Science and Industry, Hyde Park Bank, the South Side lakeshore.

Then he points to the ceiling. He moves his hand from painted green hills, over steep mountains, to the Chicago skyline and finally rests on Hyde Park's Promontory Point.

"This is my village, Achladokampos," he said. "I lived there. I passed over the, how you call? 'Hahlpes'? The mountains. The Alps! I left my village, I fly over the Alps, I live in Chicago and drive to Hyde Park."

Since then, the 71-year-old Valois co-owner has stewarded the nearly century-old Hyde Park restaurant, forming its dining room into a second home for generations of Hyde Parkers in the process.

Known by many as "the Valoys," the restaurant serves up breakfast standards such as omelets, pancakes and strip steaks, along with rotating lunch specials and sides of beef, pork and prime rib, all roasted on-site.

Customers snake by the steam tables, giving their orders directly to cooks who scramble eggs, pile sandwiches and scoop gravy onto mashed potatoes before dropping the overloaded plates on oversized cafeteria trays, which are guided down the counter to the cash register.

The tightly packed dining room routinely seats the full mix of the neighborhood — black and white, young and old, academics and working class.

Church groups meet at the big center table, happy to share the Gospel or debate scripture with anyone who will listen. Ketchup, salt and hot sauce are passed from table to table with a simple point and nod.

Opened in 1921, the restaurant moved a half-block west before Argiris' relatives purchased it in 1970, with Argiris and Sellis buying them out and taking over management in 1973.

For many Chicagoans, Valois' Formica countertops become home as much as their own kitchen tables. Some elderly diners take two or three meals a day at the modestly priced diner to escape the hassle of the grocery store and to socialize. Harold Washington used to eat at Valois twice a day, said Argiris, who can still rattle off the late mayor's breakfast order a quarter-century later.

"Three eggs over, hash browns and white toast."

Former White Sox owner Bill Veeck stopped by often enough that his breakfast — four eggs, double wheat toast, double links, hash browns — was cooked and getting cold in early January 1986 when his wife called to tell the staff that, yes, Bill had just died. She didn't want them to have to read about it in the newspaper.

"We used to have 62 chairs and serve over 1,000 people," Argiris said. "What I used to do if a chair was free was to say, 'Bill, this is George. Can I put him here?' And people said, 'Yes, of course.' After a while I didn't have to do it. If a chair is empty, people sit."

It might seem like common courtesy now, but it wasn't when Argiris and Sellis started doing it in the 1970s, a different time in terms of relations between Chicago's black and white communities.

Over decades, "the Valoys" became one of the truly desegregated pockets of what remains a largely segregated city. Inspired by the interactions and conversations of Valois' diverse clientele, Princeton sociologist Mitchell Duneier chose to write his 1992 book "Slim's Table" about a group of working-class African-American men he met while eating at Valois as a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the 1980s.

Duneier sat at the table with his field notebook and listened, pulling together an ethnography of the shared values of black and white Hyde Park diners over cups of coffee and slabs of ribs. Longtime Tribune photographer Ovie Carter provided the photographs.

The book won the American Sociological Association's award for distinguished scholarly publication. The certificate, made out to Duneier, hangs on the wall at Valois.

Years ago, a young Barack Obama used the Valois dining room to host some of his early community meetings, eventually coming to the owners for permission to put up signs and work the dining room during a failed 2000 congressional primary bid.

Argiris remembers Sasha and Malia Obama munching pancakes on Sunday mornings, and that fitness advocate Michelle Obama was quite partial to the peach cobbler.

When Obama won the White House in 2008 and 2012, Valois hosted a free "victory breakfast" the next day.

On Inauguration Day, the president's favorite, steak and eggs, was offered for only $5. They served 800 orders.

When asked why the celebration for Obama's victory, which must have been a financial loss and crowded headache, manager and Sellis' son-in-law Tom Chronopoulos looked incredulous, as if the idea of doing anything different never even occurred to them. He pointed to a mural of nearby Washington Park on the west wall.

"Because one of our customers from the neighborhood was president. Know what I'm saying? He's from our 'hood.' You have to celebrate."

Valois Cafeteria

1518 E. 53rd St.; 773-667-0647

Hours: 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday-Sunday
Established:
1921
Known for
: Steak and eggs, breakfasts, prime rib, cobbler
Note:
Cash only; 1 hour free parking with $5 purchase

charjohnson@tribune.com

Twitter @charliemagne