The Blackhawks-clad diner came in two main parts. If you turned left when you came in the door, the Blackhawks-clad patrons had tables and booths. If you turned right, it was a long, thin walkable strip between wall and counter.
The big guy walked down this thin corridor without bumping into anyone. It was a suave, practiced feet.
As he walked, he boomed a question that I answered. Thankfully, I had enough patty melt in my mouth that he didn’t hear my response, considering he was talking to the Blackhawks-clad trio just past me.
A middle-aged woman with mall mom hair and a hockey jersey gave a squeal when she saw him, swiveling in her chair and reaching up for a brief hug.
They chatted about hockey. He was surprised she had never been to a Hawks live game before. He gave her tips on when to get there (4:30, when the doors open) and what to do between then and the game (walk around, explore).
He talked about where his seats were compared to hers and they just caught up like old friends do.
Then he turned back around and had another old friends conversation with the next people down the line.
I found out later that the big guy was the owner, George Lemperis. I just thought he was a friendly local, a regular at the old-style diner, until I saw him behind the counter when I got up to go.
I found out later that the place used to be a skid row diner, years before the United Center rebuild, Oprah and the 1996 Democratic National Convention started converting this section of Madison into a western outpost of trendy bars, foodie food joints, condos and cutesy boutiques.
The grill had been sizzling since 1938, a few different owners before Lemperis and his family. Since the big guy took over in the 1970s, it has gone from a place he had to work armed to a spot where Coach Q showed up with the Stanley Cup, according to a WBEZ interview with the big guy.
Around this all, friends and buddies — there is a difference — milled and slapped backs. Smiling staff pushed past each other by the grill as burgers, patty melts, hash browns and long, thin strips of gyros meat hissed over a diner full of laughter, endless sports talk, gurgling French fry oil and the catching up of people who only see each other when hockey’s on.
I didn’t talk to the big guy other than the accidental convo when he was actually addressing Blackhawks-clad trio behind me. At first, I thought he was a regular. Then, I thought he was a cashier.
I didn’t realize I just had a brush with the King of the Palace Grill Sandwich Shop on Madison.