News that Al’s Grill, 1100 Madison St., must dismantle its outdoor dining area by Oct. 31 was met with anger and concern among supporters of the beloved diner. The tented dining area situated on the parking lot behind the restaurant boasts planter boxes and nine tables. Owners recently enclosed the lot with a wrought iron fence.
In a letter dated Sept. 7 and sent to Bill Loutos, owner of Al’s Grill, the Village of Oak Park said the temporary outdoor dining space constructed at the diner would need to come down by the end of October — the same date all temporary outdoor dining permits are set to expire throughout Oak Park.
“The date isn’t unique to Al’s Grill,” said Tammie Grossman, director of the community and economic development at village hall. “Even though it looks permanent, the chalet at Beer Shop will need to come down then, too.” The Beer Shop is located on North Boulevard in downtown Oak Park.
The letter, signed by Grossman, noted the permit for Al’s outdoor dining area had expired in July and had been temporarily extended through Oct. 31 by village staff. The letter went on to say village officials were aware the permanent fence had been installed around the parking lot on the property without a building permit and that approval for the fence construction would have been unlikely.
“According to village zoning code Al’s attached parking lot must be used for parking,” said Grossman. “The outdoor dining permit was approved as a temporary loss of parking.”
Grossman said village staff have been dedicated to supporting restaurants through the pandemic and knows Loutos to be a veteran restauranteur who understands the rules and regulations in Oak Park. She indicated multiple calls and emails asking Loutos to come into village hall to discuss his options had gone unanswered and admits the letter was “sternly worded” in hopes of setting up a meeting.
“There is a process they can go through with the zoning board of appeals to make their parking lot a permanent outdoor dining space, but there is a historically high bar when it comes to getting such approvals,” said Grossman. “We are more than willing to have a conversation, but no one can install a fence in the village without a permit. There is an ADA accessible parking space in the lot and fence impinges on it. The fence is something that definitely needs to be dealt with.”
Loutos does not deny he installed the fence without a permit.
“When I called the village about the permit, they told me it would take two or three months to get a permit approval and I didn’t have that kind of time,” said Loutos. “The fence does not prevent the lot from being used for parking. Why are they suddenly so concerned with Al’s Grill?”
There are three openings in the fence and one, a sliding gate, is large enough to allow an emergency vehicle to enter the lot. The fence represents a $12,000 investment to secure the patio area when the restaurant is closed and saves staff the daily task of breaking down the patio furniture. Loutos said he spent at least $15,000 dollars on the furniture and rents the tent covering the area for $4,500 per month. Loutos said fence was installed to protect his investment.
Loutos says both the police and fire departments have come to Al’s Grill in recent weeks. Though he has no idea who is calling the authorities on the diner, Grossman indicated there have been “complaints from residents” in the area about the patio.
Al’s Grill has been in Oak Park since 1972 and operating in its current location since 2003. Loutos spent $2 million dollars to purchase the property and build a new diner. His taxes at the time were $9,000 per year. The taxes on the property today are $65,000 annually.
“We are not selling expensive food — we are making coffee and bacon and eggs. And we are in a pandemic,” said Loutos. “How am I supposed to cover all these costs without a place to serve customers. We did what was best for us on our property.”
Loutos and his staff are clear that many of their customers insist on eating outside.
“So many of our customers are vulnerable seniors and unvaccinated children,” said veteran server Anna Lassila. “Because of COVID and especially because of Delta we should be allowed to make decisions to keep our customers safe.”
Loutos has agreed to meet with village officials on Thursday to discuss a path forward. Though he looks forward to “meeting face-to-face to see what’s what” he does not intend to remove the fence. And though he had intended to take down the patio dining area this fall he has decided to hold off until he has a guarantee he can open it up again in the spring.
If the meeting does not go well, he is not opposed to taking legal action.
“I have wonderful customers who support us, but we all think the village wants us out of here,” said Loutos. “This is all about five parking spaces that no-one can even use after we close at 3p.m.”
Madison Street is a commercial corridor with parking ordinances requiring certain businesses to provide a certain number of parking spaces. Al’s Grill was grandfathered into the ordinance and is expected to provide five parking spots in its back parking lot according to the village.
“Every municipality throughout the country controls property through ordinances,” said Grossman. “If I did not enforce the orders the village board has enacted I would not be doing my job.”