Where everybody knows your name

Owner Bill Loutos has been serving up food and conversation at Al's Grill for more than 30 years

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By TERRY DEAN

Jimmie Williams strolls into his favorite lunchtime dining spot at around his usual time, 1 or so in the afternoon. His actually spot is at the end of the counter at Oak Park's Al's Grill. With its long row of swiveling stools and shiny hardtop counter, the diner's centerpiece looks like something right out of Middle America. But the regulars consider Al's more than just a restaurant.

Williams has been a loyal customer of Al's Grill for almost 30 years. The grill has been around much longer, according to regulars. It's like a home away from home for many Oak Parkers, and even for those who've moved away but often come back. Patrons as diverse as doctors, lawyers, janitors and bus drivers have made Al's Grill their number one Oak Park eatery.

Williams is one of many local regulars who come in to eat, chat or just sit in hisâ€"or herâ€"spot. Williams remembers going to the grill's old location, which happens to be across the street from the new haunt.

"Everybody knew everybody," said Williams, 62, a retired machinist for M&M/Mars. "And you didn't sit in somebody else's seat. You may have done it once if you didn't know but you wouldn't do it again.

"Everybody had their own spot, just like here now. That's my end down there," he explained, with a nod of his head to the end of the counter.

Before Williams can sit down at his spot, he chats up the owner. The two have been friends for years.

There is, however no "Al" here. There was an owner named Al Carr, and except for a brief time years ago, the diner has always been in his name. No one knows for sure what happened to him.

"When people come in and ask me, 'Are you Al?' I say, 'Yes, I'm Al,'" said Bill Loutos, 53, who's owned the grill since 1973.

Al's Grill, located at 1100 Madison St., opened at its new location in May 2003 after more than 50 years at its former place across the street at 1053 Madison St. The old home sits abandoned now.

The new place is twice as large. The stools at the counter across the street were so close, many regulars said, that you sat almost shoulder to shoulder. And the joke was that if you had to use the bathroom, you'd have to take off your coat first because there was no room in there to move.

Loutos worked there as a teenager. He and his regulars like to reminisce about the old days, from sweltering summers and blistering cold winters to some good old, friendly, knock-down arguments.

"Well, he's hot-tempered and I'm hot-tempered, so we'd get into it," Williams remembered. "Oh, he'd tell me, 'Get Out.' I'd get mad and say, 'I'm never coming back.' It could be any little old thing. Maybe he didn't cook an egg right. I'd say, 'I didn't
order it that way,' and he'd say, 'Well you eat it that way.'"

When Loutos moved into his new place, he took along the old sign, sporting the name and motto, "We doze, but we never close," which refers to its former status as a 24/7 place. Hours now are 5 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday.

The old place, regulars said, was like a truck stop for some folk. The new Al's is part diner and restaurant. Loutos, however, wanted to keep the old 'diner' look.

There's no carpet or dark lighting. Plenty of natural light streams in from the outside through the many windows. The kitchen isn't located in the back behind a couple of swinging doors eitherâ€"it's out front, in a space right behind the counter and seating area.

"I didn't want no fancy stuff," said Loutos. "This was my dream, to build it the way I want it. I wanted a nice clean place. I wanted a place for people who work in the area to come in, have lunch and feel comfortable."

The grill has been a family affair through the years. Loutos' daughter, son, wife and stepfather all work there in some capacity, along with more than a dozen other employees. At least 10 workers are on hand on any given day, including Nora Cassell, the grill's longest working waitress at 22 years and counting.

Like in the movies, there always seems to be one waitress who's as quick with a quip or one-liner as she is serving customers. Of all the grill's lively waitresses, Cassell fits the bill perfectly.

"Everyone says, 'Oh, you have seniority here,' so that means I get walked on first," she joked.

"My first day here, I come in. I looked at the place, liked it, and said, 'I'll stay,'" she recalled in between taking orders. "Well, it's the end of my day. I'm cleaning up. I look up; my boss is on one side of the counter and [Jimmie's] on the other side. They got each other in a headlock. I said, 'I'm getting the heck outta' here.' It was an everyday thing with them. Well, 22 years later and I'm still here."

Balancing work and home

At first, Loutos kept the diner open around the clock because customers expected it.

"When I worked long hours in the law firm business I would come here," said Julie Hamilton, who's been coming to Al's for 30 years. "They used to be open until midnight but Billy needed his own life."

People who move out of Oak Park actually keep in touch through Al's; Hamilton's daughter found an old college chum by contacting the grill. "If you really want to find someone who used to live in Oak Park, your best chance of finding them, other than going to the cops, is to come back here," she said.

When Loutos later decided to close at night, he ran into an unthinkable dilemma: there were no keysâ€"not to the front door, the back door or any door. "Since we never closed, we never had to lock the doors," he said.

It wasn't easy early on, Loutos admitted, but people accepted him. "If you're willing to work and are honest, people will like you," he reflected. "It was tough for me because of the language and being able to write things. Nobody treated me with that, 'Oh you goddamn Greek,' and all of that stuff. Maybe people would say that but I don't want no enemies. You don't like who I am, so be it. I know who I am."

Loutos has been in the restaurant business most of his adult life. He was born in Tripoli, Greece to farmer parents. His mother, Georgia, died when he was 13 while the family was still in Greece.

Father Toni decided to move with Bill and his sister Tina to America in 1969. His dad worked while in the states but after a couple of years decided to return to Greece. He died in 1997 at age 97.

A few years into the business, in June 1976, Loutos met his wife Helen at the wedding of one of her relatives. He was 24 years old; she was 18 and fresh out of high school. They married just five months later.

"I don't know what it was; something just clicked," Helen said. "Sometimes things are just meant to be. Something said that this was the fella I was going to end up with." They'll celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary this year. They named their two children after Bill's parentsâ€"a Greek tradition.

As a young bride, Helen said she had to adjust to the hustle and bustle of the restaurant business. "In the beginning it was a bit scary because I had such a sheltered life growing up," she said. "Our life was school and home, and that was it. Bill had the business for a few years when we married. He was kind of doing everything. When he would get a call at 2 in the morning that someone wasn't coming, he'd have to get up and go to the diner. I wasn't used to that kind of pace. It was eye-opening."

She adapted, though, taking care of the kids before starting to work at the restaurant herself. Her father Jimmy has been retired for some time but he helps out in the kitchen as a cook.

Loutos refers to daughter Georgia as his "right hand" at the grill. A Loyola University grad, Georgia taught school for a little while after receiving a degree in education shortly after the new grill opened. The family business, though, lured her back.

"Everyday there's something different," said Georgia, who's attending graduate school in business. "Everybody we see here is like family."

Both kids were brought up in the business. Son Toniâ€"who's sometimes referred to as 'Al Jr.'â€"recalled wanting to work with his dad at the grill as young as age 6. He got his chance.

"When I was a kid they would come in for breakfast and I always wanted to help," said Toni, a senior at DePaul University studying business finance. "And [my dad] would tell me, 'Go sit down, go sit down. You don't want to do this yet.' Finally when I was 9, he woke me up at around 5 in the morning and said, 'Come on, you're coming to work.'"

Loutos put a milk crate on the floor and put Toni on the cash register. It's still the same cash register today: the highest denomination is $5, no bells and whistles or little pictures of food telling you how much stuff costs or what change to give. Loutos even recalled that when Toni as a teen was working at a convenience store, the manager was so impressed that he knew how to count out change.

Both of the kids have thought about the grill's future and their place in it.

"We don't want to have this leave our family's hand," said Georgia. "My dad's been in the business for so many years. He's left his mark and we'd like to continue it at some point. But he's going to be here till he's 100."

A Madison Street fixture

Next to Loutos, his family and a few longtime regulars, Cassell is as much a part of the grill as anyone. Loutos was in business for about 10 years when he hired her. When Nora got pregnant a few years later, she thought she'd have to quit. He told her, "My grill will always be here. Go have your baby," she remembered.

Her memories from the old place include having to work during long hot Oak Park summers. She recalled one recent summer day in the new place.

"I told Billy when we moved from across the street how I couldn't stand the heat over there. He said, 'Oh, when we move over here it won't be so hot.' One day it got so hotâ€"I mean I was just miserable. I said, 'I can't take this heat anymore.' I ran up to him and kicked him in the shins. And he looked at me and said, 'What was that for?' I said, 'Man, you lied to me.' I said, 'You're supposed to say I'm fired now.' He said, 'Oh no, you're not getting off that easy.'"

When Loutos considered relocating, he wanted to stay close to the neighborhood. The building he was in was about to be sold when the new property, just across the street, became available.

Plans for rehabbing the old place and adding new businesses by its current owners either failed or never materialized. At one point, a flower shop did open but it didn't last.

The doors at the old place, ironically, are locked for now. The new place is thriving, despite competition from other restaurants. Loutos said when he bought the original place you could count the number of restaurants in the neighborhood on one hand. Now, there's a restaurant or snack shop on almost every corner. But Al's Grill still has its place in the community. And he's glad people don't have to look far to find it.

"When I moved, nobody would have to ask, 'What happened to Al's Grill?'" he said. "Al's Grill is right here."

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