Gone, but not forgotten

When I moved to Oak Park in 1990, the restaurant on the southwest corner of Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street was Cafe Winberie. I liked this restaurant’s location. Being able to walk four blocks to my home, rather than driving, was a plus after a meal that included two glasses of wine. It soon closed for remodeling and re-opened as Winberie’s.

The interior walls of the remodeled restaurant were a pleasant mix of brick and dark wood. I tended to eat in the dining area only when I was with friends or was hosting family members. When I was there by myself, I preferred to sit at a small round high-top table in the bar area where the lighting was better for reading while I waited for my meal to be served.

The restaurant’s website claimed that Winberie’s was a place “where everyone is a regular.” I once overheard Ben, a bartender, saying he recognized half the people who walked through the front door. When he left Winberie’s to open a store in Chicago with his wife, I wondered how the restaurant would adapt to his absence. Soon a woman named Yvonne began serving the bar area on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. Lisa was the bartender later in the week.

When I arrived, typically once or twice a week, I ordered a glass of the least expensive Cabernet. The usual response from Yvonne or Lisa was, “And two pieces of bread, no butter!” (They knew I loved the multigrain bread.)  One evening, Lisa approached my table and said, “Yvonne called me at home. She told me, ‘When Kevin comes in, tell him to order Chianti. They’ve changed the brand of the house Cabernet and it’s awful.’” I drank Chianti until the restaurant changed to another brand of inexpensive Cabernet.

According to its website, Winberie’s was a “casually elegant cafe cooking up New American cuisine.” My friends and family members who ate there always found something appealing and reasonably priced on the menu or on the list of daily specials. With my more picky tastes and cardiac concerns, I usually ordered the Chicken Marsala. Yvonne and Lisa, however, knew that it should be served with no mushrooms, no sauce, and no extra salt. In other words, plain grilled chicken. When my “frequent diner” card was full, I would get $20 off my next meal. I would order salmon with no sauce or extra salt. (I liked the fact that I did not have to go online to register for the card.)

For many years, Winberie’s had the same manager, a man named Gary. When the corporate office moved him to another city, so many of the restaurant’s patrons signed a farewell poster that another was needed for other regulars to sign. The fact that the corporate office had made this decision should have been a warning to patrons like me. There is a difference between a restaurant that is part of a chain and a locally-owned entity.

A series of managers followed during the next few years. Eventually, I noticed that the restaurant hadn’t been quite as busy as it had been in earlier years. At 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 5, 2019, I sat down at a high top table in the bar area. Lisa, the bartender, approached me and said, “Before you order, I need to tell you something. The restaurant will be closing on Dec. 28.”

For me, a restaurant is more than a place to consume food and drink. What I see and hear while I’m there has a big impact on my decision whether to return and become a regular.

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