Every Sunday for the past 20 years, we have enjoyed breakfast at Al’s Grill on Madison. This is beyond a typical restaurant — it is a welcome haven where their long-term staff know people by their names, and their orders. It is a place where you can rely on great food, great service, and a true glimpse of what Oak Park is really like: bringing hospitality, and a diverse and very loyal clientele.
When the pandemic threatened every business in the village, especially the small independent ventures, the owner of Al’s Grill thought out of the box and established an outdoor seating area, using a small parking lot located on his own property. It became a welcome respite from our homes as you could sit outside to enjoy a meal. The space is open. The number of tables are better distanced than any other restaurant in Oak Park. It was heated or cooled — at considerable expense to the owner — but it offered something few in Oak Park provided. The outdoor space remains a welcome environment and with the resurgence of the delta variant, it offers a much-needed alternative to indoor restaurants.
We were very dismayed to hear that the village has now determined that the owner is no longer allowed to keep this space open, telling him it has to revert it back to a parking lot. Not only does this seem ill-timed with surging COVID cases, but it also refuses to acknowledge the needs of independent businesses in Oak Park.
The space is fully confined to his property. It is attractive with beautiful and seasonal planters. It offers heat or fans. It is arguably the best outdoor dining space in the village. Given how most other communities have worked closely with their businesses to weather the pandemic or to learn how to think about their community first, Oak Park reverts to the way things were, rather than the way they should be. Some communities block off entire streets — indeed the addition of outside space on Lake Street for outside dining is an indication of how things should be in order to do what we can to keep our businesses healthy and vibrant.
Most dining facilities do not require onsite parking so the use of Al’s Grill’s parking lot should not be a deterrent. So why make him revert this space back to a lot when the space, as currently used, offers so much more?
It appears that the village did not effectively learn one of the most important lessons of the pandemic — to be nimble and flexible when it comes to surviving. Let Al’s Grill keep its space. Encourage entrepreneurs and independent businesses to choose Oak Park as a place where their concerns are recognized. If not, ventures like this that bring so much more to the DNA of the community than the $70,000 in property taxes, may easily choose to leave — along with many residents frustrated at the village’s lack of concern for its citizens and those who do business in the community.
Jennifer and Ken GoodSmith are longtime residents of Oak Park.