By Sarah Downey
A man wearing a blue sweatshirt and matching baseball cap strolls through the door of the White Palace Grill and orders a hamburger to go with sliced pickles but no relish. The cook, who wears a white apron and goes by Charlie, puts the meat on the grill and minutes later slides the steaming patty onto a bun. After the pickles and some onions, four circles each of mustard and ketchup are applied. "Can you slice it in half for me please, sir?" the man asks, and Charlie obliges as the man spreads a dollar bill and some coins on the counter. He wishes Charlie a good day, then turns to offer a customer a gold chain in exchange for a cigarette, gratefully accepting when the Marlboro is bestowed for free.
It's a moment like thousands of others in the life of the tiny diner at Roosevelt and Canal. The White Palace is one of the few fixtures to ride out the changes to the Maxwell Street market district, and vendors now peddle their wares on Sunday right outside the door. That's pretty good for business. Then again, drawing customers has never been much of a problem at the 35-seat diner, though some bemoaned the milkshake elimination a few years ago.
"There wasn't any real money in it. The clientele now isn't really the milkshake type, they're more coffee drinkers," says Arthur Bookman, who's owned the diner for more than half a century. "We were selling maybe three or four milkshakes and malteds a day in the summer and none in the winter. It's technical, you see. To store all that ice cream we were going to have to raise the prices. I figured I didn't want to do that. We do a good job of keeping the prices down, so we got rid of the shakes. It hasn't hurt our business any."
What's been more difficult is retaining staff at his 24/7 operation, Bookman says. Charlie has worked for him for 15 years, but finding help for the graveyard shift is tough sometimes. "The whole thing depends on your help," Bookman says. "If someone doesn't show up, you put on a white shirt and go down and work." The schedule never really bothered Bookman much, but at 76 he says he may finally be ready to step aside. "If I was 35, I would start all over again," he says. "I love the place, but I've got my health to think about now. Most people do retire before they die, don't they? I think so. Especially if you can afford it."
Bookman could have retired already if he'd wanted to. He says his family fostered his work ethic. His father was a grocer who came to Chicago from Chernobyl in 1916. Born and raised in West Humboldt Park, Bookman went to Roosevelt High School and Wright Junior College and joined the air force in 1942. When he got out four years later he felt it was too late to go back to school. Instead he went over to the White Palace, which a friend had opened in 1939. Back then there was no Dan Ryan Expressway, and Maxwell Street was three times its length today, so it was easy to drop in from the flea market and take a load off. "Some people came in for a coffee and a doughnut, others they wanted to have a chicken dinner," says Bookman. He was cooking and cleaning around the clock, and he scraped enough money together to buy the White Palace in 1946, 14 years before the expressway moved in.
The Dan Ryan pushed the Maxwell Street market district west. It spilled over onto Halsted and inched west to Sangamon, where it was stopped in 1966 by the arrival of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Bookman stayed put, even though by the late 60s he was also running a chain of 20 Huddle House Grills. "Lawrence and Kimball, North and Ashland, Madison and Leavitt, Clark and Erie," Bookman says. "I built all over Chicago, do you want to hear any more? It was just hard work, extremely hard work. I don't know what they are now. I don't go back and look at them."
Bookman finished selling off the Huddle Houses a few years ago, but he kept the White Palace going, mainly for sentimental reasons. "It's a landmark and I'm proud of it," he says. "I had a lot of other places and I always had this one as the leader." The early 1990s were heady days at the White Palace, with scenes from Backdraft and Mad Dog and Glory being shot there. "We had Robert De Niro and Bill Murray in here," Bookman says, "I'd say Bill Murray was my favorite--he kidded around all night."
Nowadays, in place of the neighborhood's warehouses, flophouses, and old Soo Line offices, there's a strip mall with a Walgreens and a Dominick's. Bookman says he doesn't notice those stores as much as the Maxwell Street scene that's moved back east to Canal and his doorstep.
It returned in 1994, after the city bought much of the old Maxwell Street market district and sold it to UIC to expand into. Vendors now pay $30 a day to hawk their wares along Canal, on either side of Roosevelt. James Tucker, 47, an equipment hauler, has been a White Palace regular "since I was a little kid." Before going to work in the market, he says, "I have coffee, bacon and eggs, hash browns, grits, whatever. I know this is good food. And on hot days you can get free water."
The water's free but if you want it to go the cup costs 25 cents. Still, out of more than 40 menu items only 4 cost more than $5. Vendor Bobby Belk is 53 and likes to stop in for a break from selling produce. "The food's all right and real cheap and he always had black people working there," says Belk, "You can get a whole meal there when you ain't got a lot of money."
Randy Prow sells photography equipment from a van he parks outside the White Palace. He doesn't eat there much, but believes it helps bring customers his way. "They've made changes that drove out a lot of the vendors," says Prow, 36. "It'd be kind of a shame if the White Palace ever closes. It's kind of a cool place."
Bookman says he's only thinking about selling, but he did take out an ad to see if anyone was interested in buying. "For all I know, someone could come along and turn it into the Pump Room," he says. He gets a little touchy when he talks about letting go. "I'm old, OK? If I sell it, it's not going to be for a long time. It's a landmark."
If Bookman officially puts his diner on the market, he might find a taker a few blocks west at Jim's Original, a 24-hour hot dog joint that's stood at Halsted and Maxwell since 1939. The UIC plan had called for demolition of most of the old Maxwell Street buildings, including Jim's. But a revised plan approved last week by the city's Community Development Commission would leave 8 of the buildings and 13 of the facades still standing.
John Panos, a manager at Jim's, wonders what's coming. "They're gonna need to eat, aren't they? So maybe we'll get left standing, I don't know," says Panos. If Jim's has to go, he thinks the White Palace would be a place to consider: "If I were the owner, I'd think it's a good idea," Panos says. "We're the people that have been here forever. We're the little guys that made it, you know?"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.