Valois cafeteria has the best windows in Hyde Park for looking out on the world. And they don’t mind if you linger a bit after you’ve eaten, so when you want to go somewhere and daydream while sipping coffee, or have an intimate conversation, Valois is the place to go.
One day I was in Valois having breakfast and window gazing when my reverie was interrupted.
“Excuse me everybody!” a man in line said loudly. “Today is Larry’s birthday, so let’s sing happy birthday to him.” Everyone in Valois that morning paused from eating their breakfast to sing Larry an enthusiastic “Happy Birthday.”
Larry is the man who works the front counter at Valois cafeteria and is the face of the Hyde Park institution. I wondered how many people must have gotten to know him over the years. He’s a man of few words, although, I have seen him turn on the charm for the ladies.
But usually, what you hear from him is “next, who’s next?” as you step up to order. With a deep voice, thick mustache, a Greek accent, and wearing a cook’s white uniform, he’s a colorful presence. He keeps the order line moving with his steady chant, punctuated by a short conversation with a regular, a laugh – then it’s back to “whose next?” In spite his no-nonsense manner, there’s an easy friendliness about his manner.
Born in Alexandroupolis, Greece, Larry came to America to be with his father when he was twenty years old. They lived in New York for a while before moving to Chicago. He has two sons from a previous marriage whom he says he’s very proud of Chris, 28 and Jimmy, 24.
“I’ve worked here since 1973,” he says. “I was working at a restaurant in Palatine when my boss recommended me for the job Valois. I came down and started the next day. I work from 4 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon every day. I’m off on Tuesday. I prepare everything, all of the food, then I work the counter – that’s it.”
Well, maybe. Prominent Chicagoans stop by Valois for breakfast all of the time and Larry’s been there to greet them all. “Jesse Jackson and his son, Jesse Jr., come in here a lot,” says Larry. “The new mayor (Rahm Emanuel) has been here. I cooked Bill Veeck’s (former owner of the Chicago White Sox) breakfast everyday in 1975. I used to cook breakfast for Mayor (Harold) Washington everyday from 1973 to 1974. ”
Valois cafeteria’s most famous customer was President Obama. “He came in here one day and came around the side and I shook his hand. I told him that we have the egg white special for him. He said no; I want scrambled eggs, pancakes and sausages.”
Larry is a celebrity in his own right. Once, I saw him on the street and I looked right at him and kept on walking, then it hit me, “Hey, that’s Larry.” I turned back around and he was still standing there, waiting for me to recognize him with an amused expression on his face. We looked at each other and smiled and nodded.
What does he like most about his job? “I like working with people,” he says.
Mary, Larry’s co-worker for twenty years, says that people like him too. “Some customers will come in on Tuesday and ask ‘where’s Larry?’ When we tell them it’s his off day they’ll turn around and leave.”
I asked Larry what was the most important life lesson his father taught him. He paused for a moment, then he said, “My father, he taught me to be nice to old people, don’t lie and don’t steal – be straight. That’s it.”