Since opening Eastgate Café, 102 Harrison St., Olya Dailey and her husband Pat have been hands-on business owners. Now, nearly 14 years later, the Arts District mainstay has permanently closed. Over the years the café became known for serving up home-style European-American fare and grew to be a destination for musicians and music lovers.
The Dailey’s were having trouble renting the tiny garden apartment in the residential building they had purchased as an investment in 1999. To address the issue the couple decided to have the property rezoned for retail purposes and entered the complicated process in 2006. After an uphill battle, they were granted the opportunity to open a “bookstore, gift shop and café.”
It is true Eastgate Café sold books and trinkets, but over the years the business grew to be more of a bistro than anything else. The niched space was prized for its homey feel and artsy atmosphere appealing to ukulele players, story tellers and painters alike. When jazz pianist Doug Lalli saw the cafe for the first time, he compared it to The Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village and stuck a deal to host Sunday jam sessions in the café. The weekly performances drew a regular crowd and even inspired Lalli to write a song called “The Eastgate Blues.”
On April 3, just before the start of their weekly jam session, the business owners broke the news that they had sold the building.
“We had to tell them this would be their last performance at Eastgate,” said Dailey. “I know it felt very sudden, but we had the building on the market for a few years; when the deal fell into place everything happened fast. They were shocked and silent when we told them.”
Dailey is clear Eastgate Café would have closed over a year ago had they not owned the building — they would not have been able to pay the rent on the space during the darkest days of the pandemic. She credits musicians, especially house band members Lalli, Tony Morrison and John Scoville, for keeping the café going during the past two years. She is dedicated to finding a place in Oak Park where the house band can perform on Sunday evenings.
“It is bittersweet,” said Dailey. “When you invest in people for almost 15 years of your life there are so many beautiful and gorgeous memories and some tears, too.”
“I just want to close this place and chill the hell out,” said Pat Dailey as he removed photographs from the walls of the café.
The Dailey’s will need to have the eatery cleared out by the end of the month. They are donating dishes to a women’s shelter and distributing restaurant supplies to other local businesses. They look forward to enjoying a “semi-retirement” and possibly relocating to a warmer climate, but it is clear that the café will be missed.
“I am going to miss them so much,” said Wendy Lalli, building tenant, jazz fan and café regular. “Eastgate is my idea of heaven. When I walked in for the first time, I immediately felt at home. I will miss this place terribly.”