This piece, which I wrote in 2002, provides a glimpse into a classic Oak Park place that has changed in small but significant ways over the years.
George’s is a little restaurant on Oak Park Avenue that proudly boasts “Broiled Food” on its brand-new awnings. Inside, the basic restaurant area is a throwback to the coffee shops of yore: Jell-O on display, smell of java and cigarettes, and a load of sandwiches on the virtually unchanging menu.
My racquetball partner told me his “derelict mother” (his words) usually sits in the back of George’s, scorching out butts in overflowing ashtrays, and waiting for the next lottery drawing. Sure enough, when I was at George’s for lunch today, there was a battalion of the life-battered, slouching in naugahyde booths that have conformed, over time, to their individual bodies, each diner denizen doing his or her part to keep Philip Morris stock afloat. These are the old guard, the standbys, the local shut-ins who venture out once, maybe twice a day to eat, socialize, smoke, and then it’s home, where a little sleep rounds their day and they come back to George’s at dawn for breakfast. The waitress calls them “Hon” or by their first names, and they flirt and cough and smile. This is the kind of clientele that George’s – and other coffee shops – exist to serve. People with time to sit, have pie, watch television and talk. A dying breed.
Teacher I know at the local high school tells me that George’s is the place that administrative assistants go; teachers eat at the comparatively more upscale Thyme and Honey down the street; thus is class stratification dramatized in something as simple as restaurant choice in this relatively small community within a small community.
I went to George’s for a Monte Cristo (a sandwich of fried ham and cheese, sometimes with turkey). What the Monte Cristo sandwich has going for it is that the whole shebang is battered and fried together, ensuring high moisture and a forced marriage of ingredients that ensures a holistically integrated (if not altogether wholesome) sammich.
George’s Monte Cristo does not disappoint. Moments after I ordered, the golden brick was laid before me, steaming. Slicing into it was like splitting the yolk of a fried egg: the pale cheesiness flowed out with pieces of ham like tiny red rafts on a high-fat flume, drenching the crisp bread. This is not a sandwich you order when wearing a suit and silk tie (but who the hell wears that get-up anymore!?). The cheese, incidentally, is Swiss, and the ham and turkey were rough-cut and hot so the flavor popped.
I’m eating, and I hear Barbara, the big, blustery mom-type waitress, shout to some departing workmen, “Don’t stay away for six months next time. We worry about you when we don’t see you.”
Moments later, she snaps to the cook, “Look at me, Johnny. Be nice to me, Johnny. I might not be here tomorrow.”
Sweeping up the last of the entirely superfluous French fries, I notice a little guy with glasses shuffle in and shyly grab a stool. A pretty young waitress greets him with, “Here he is. In for his mid-afternoon coffee,” and goes to get the cup.
The manager takes it from her, and says, “That’s okay. I’ll get it.”?
As he opens sugars to prepare this regular’s regular, he says, “Just after I wash my hands, you come in!” Laugh of people who’ve known each other for years but maybe never actually conversed with one another.
I walked home from George’s, which is a good thing, because I think my heart slowed down a little while eating the Monte Cristo. Might not be a bad idea for George’s to install an electrified door handle/welcome mat combo that would automatically defibrillate cholesterol-dazed patrons as they leave the shop.
George’s is not a destination dining experience, but it was right for a day when you’re sitting home, worried about your kids, amazed how some invisible hand could have so thoroughly looted your portfolio, and how we’re toeing the edge of war so enthusiastically that few of us notice the emperor has no clothes.
Georges is a local joint that does an honest job with simple foods you can count on.
Also, George has a hat-rack, a disappearing cultural artifact. On a disturbing note, the last time I was there they had a revolving pie rack. It is now gone.
The Monte Cristo sandwich, however, is still on the menu. Thank goodness.
145 South Oak Park Avenue
Oak Park, IL