“It’s been an emotional ride, but it is done, it’s over and we’re all adjusting,” says Chef Ivy Grant as she scans the quiet kitchens at Winberie’s restaurant. “When a door closes after 20 years, maybe another one will open.”
Grant called the Oak Park kitchen home for just shy of 20 years. She navigated the final days of service as gracefully as possible before the Winberie’s closed for good on Dec. 28.
Today she is in the process of shutting down the restaurant and transferring their food inventory to other kitchens in the Select Restaurant Group, the Ohio-based restaurant company that owned and managed the Oak Park restaurant located on the corner of Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue.
“I have a freezer full of chicken dinosaurs to deal with,” says Grant. “Even when we started doing tenders, I still had to keep dinosaurs on hand because the kids would still ask for them.”
Families throughout the community knew the allure of Winberie’s chicken dinosaurs and flocked to their Sunday brunches over the years. Known as a community hub for reliable family-friendly fare like steak frites, cedar planked salmon and chicken marsala, the centrally located restaurant was a frequent option for book club meetings, family gatherings and holiday celebrations.
Grant was quick to point out Winberie’s closure will leave a larger void in the community.
In addition to working with District 97 to provide nutrition and food programming to local students, the restaurant celebrated Teacher Appreciation Week by giving out gift cards to every Oak Park teacher.
Winberie’s also made soup for Beyond Hunger’s Empty Bowls and partnered with the Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce on various events.
“We were more than a restaurant,” says Grant. “We made an impact with outreach by working with charitable organizations, local schools and women’s groups.”
Grant’s mother inspired her love of cooking. In college she took on her first restaurant job and never looked back. Grant spent nearly half of her 45 years with Select Restaurants in the kitchens at Winberie’s.
Hired on as a sous chef in 2000, Grant, who enjoys being hands-on in the kitchen reluctantly ascended to the role of executive chef two years ago. No matter her role, Grant was most fond of the community vibe within the restaurant and cherished the sense of camaraderie among the restaurant’s regular patrons and staff.
“It was an intense feeling [on Dec. 28],” says Grant of her final dinner service. “A lot of people came in who hadn’t been in for years, but I realized how much I will miss the familiar faces of my regulars.”
Several customers and much of the staff thought the news of the restaurant’s closure was a nothing more than a ploy to rebrand and reopen. Grant was also shocked to learn there wouldn’t be a reboot. However, the longtime chef knew Winberie’s customer base had dwindled over the years.
According to Grant, people in the community and other restaurants in the area thought Winberie’s would be around forever and were surprised to hear the Oak Park mainstay was closing permanently.
While “many factors” contributed to the decision to close the more than 30-year-old establishment, Grant said she considers the loss of the restaurant a cautionary tale for the community.
“People need to support their local restaurants continuously,” says Grant. “Restaurants can’t be reserved just for special occasions. They require everyday support in order to survive.”