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Giving Up

Last Days of the Seminary



People who passed the Seminary restaurant a couple of Wednesdays ago on their way to work may have noticed the hastily lettered sign on the door, or the absence of people pushing in and out carrying plain coffee and toasted rye or an English muffin to go. But I hadn't, so I stopped by late Wednesday night after a community meeting. I drove up Lincoln and parked across the street, just north of Fullerton, between the newsstand and the Fiesta Mexicana, so sure of getting the $7.95 butt steak medium rare with homemade soup, salad, and cottage cheese instead of the potato that at first I didn't notice the place was dark. When I did, I trotted across Lincoln to read the Closed sign on the bar entrance.

Puzzled, I walked down to the corner past the darkened interior, catching a glimpse inside of the old coffee machine's two tiny red lights. As I would see dozens of people do in the next few days, I cupped my hands between my forehead and the window. Someone was inside, so I walked back to the bar entrance and tapped. A friendly faced young man I'd seen there before got up from a booth facing the TV set and came to the door. It was Louie Atsaves, whose family has owned the place since 1918.

"We're closed," he said.

For good, or just for tonight? I asked.

He motioned me inside. I said I had come by for the butt steak dinner.

"Sorry, they're all gone," he said. "But you're hungry. How about some spaghetti? I can fix you some."

He went into the kitchen and turned on a light, and with a friend who'd stopped by to keep Louie company I watched part of a rock video and then Arsenio Hall on the TV at the end of the bar. I was telling the friend when Louie walked back with a plate of steaming spaghetti that the first time I was ever in the bar side of the Seminary was the night I came in to meet friends and watch the astronauts walk on the moon.

"July 20, 1969," Louie said, impressed. "Apollo 11. You were here then?"

You bet, I said. Back then the Seminary was more formally divided in two, and until that night I hadn't even known about the bar/night-restaurant side.

Back then, I said, I'd also been there once when members of the Lincoln Park Builders Club, a group of realtors and developers, had come in after a fishing trip and given the Seminary chefs their catch.

Louie nodded. "Ray Meyer, when the Blue Demons played somewhere in Maine, would bring back lobsters for the team and have us prepare them." Framed sketches of Meyer and his son Joey, a composite photograph of the DePaul basketball team, and a pennant on the paneled walls are about the only decorations in this part of the place. Its red flocked wallpaper has been replaced with mirrors and the old fake stained glass is gone.

But why close now? I asked.

"My father said 'Today,'" Louie replied. "It was a personal decision."

"It didn't have to do with rent or anything," he continued, anticipating my question. "Although, when you own a restaurant for as long as my family has, you usually buy the building. We're the same family for three generations, and we get along fine with the Eisenbergs, the landlords, who've been here as long. They're not price gougers; we still have quite a few years on the lease.

"We just weren't getting the breakfast and lunch business. People's eating habits have changed. As this neighborhood has changed from families to a lot more single people, you get more people eating on the run or ordering a pizza to be delivered.

"Over the years, we'd see a guy in the morning who'd come back for dinner. Now you've got guys who go to the health club after work, before they go home and think about dinner."

The smell of coffee and a hum of conversations characterized the day side of the Seminary for years. So, every so often, did a staticky police radio. The brightly lighted coffee shop was overhauled six years ago, repainted off-white, with tasteful clear, ribbed-glass shades suspended above the green booths, and cafe curtains hung along gleaming brass rods.

Everybody always stepped aside for the busboys, really men in their 40s or 50s, clearing and setting up tables, usually well in advance of the waitresses. The waitresses, typically older women dressed in black and white, could anticipate a person's order after only two or three visits.

The other room, reached through a narrow opening at the rear, was darker, with paneled walls and an unusually dim bar area. Most people entered it directly from Lincoln Avenue and sat down at one of the dozen or so bar stools or in an adjacent booth. Or they continued on into the carpeted, paneled dining room.

The night-side business had held up, Louie said. "At night, at the bar, we would get mostly businesspeople from the bars around here, when they closed--Kelly's Pub on Webster, the Golden Ox, Zum Deutschen Eck, the waiters and waitresses from the Brauhaus; sure, Sterch's and other places up and down Lincoln Avenue. They'd come in, eat something, have a drink, and go."

But that business apparently wasn't enough. "It takes a lot of overhead to keep up as large a menu as we have," Louie said. "A lot of restaurants now are specialized. The restaurant business now is really splintered; there are a lot of different types."

He continued, "And part of it is the institutions--the hospital, Aetna Bank, DePaul--they've all expanded, and when they do, they take care of their own with food service or lunchrooms. All of these things led us to close temporarily."

Temporarily? I asked.

Louie suggested I return to talk with his uncle, who would be there in the morning.

The next morning, before eight, a neighbor rang my doorbell to tell me the Seminary had closed. "It was their landlord," he said with certainty. "Raised their rent so much this time, they had to close. Just like Woolworth's."

(The closing last winter of the Woolworth's next door to the Seminary had struck a blow to whatever sense of constancy remained in the neighborhood. People began coming home with big plastic Woolworth's bags filled with the things they needed and knew they would need, bought at steadily discounted prices. Nowhere else, we knew, would we be able to consider parakeets across from good cheap sweat pants, shower curtain liners opposite three-for-a-dollar boxes of baking soda. Spur-of-the-moment shopping trips that combined paper clips or computer diskettes with a freshly made BLT or grilled cheese from the lunch counter were a thing of the past. The empty Woolworth's still stands, a reproach for all the midnight shopping trips to Osco.)

When I went out with the dog, another neighbor drew close to explain why the Seminary had closed. "The help," she said. "They robbed the place blind, you know, and the new management let them get away with it."

When I got back I called another neighbor to ask if he'd heard about the closing. He hadn't but he said he knew why: the remodeling. He spoke of it as though it had happened yesterday. "When they got rid of that lunch counter, they got rid of all the regulars who went in for breakfast. They should never have taken out that counter."

Later in the day I met up with another neighbor, who had gotten a call Tuesday night telling her the place was closing. "It was the taxes," she said. "Look at those six corners. Only the Seminary building pays taxes. The rest are institutions-- the hospital, the White Elephant, the bank, that little park the bank sold to the hospital, DePaul across Fullerton. Not a one pays taxes, right? That's why the rent had to go up."

Someone else said the Seminary just couldn't make it after last month, when George Mitchell, the manager, went into the hospital.

A week or so later, a story was circulating that Children's Memorial had bought the place. The word was also that a McDonald's was coming in--a rumor that swept through the neighborhood like a grease fire.

I walked over to meet with Louie's uncle Pete on Friday morning. When I tapped on the window, he came to the door, and we went back to his booth, where he'd been watching TV.

"The old movies are keeping me company," he said. Pete is a handsome man of medium height in his late 50s, whose thick white hair makes him look Irish rather than Greek.

The Atsaves family is originally from Sparta, and it was to this restaurant Pete's father Louie came in 1918, 11 years old and fresh from Ellis Island, to work as a busboy. The uncles sent young Louie to school; during the Depression he took over the restaurant for them.

The place was named for McCormick Theological Seminary, across Fullerton, which moved to the University of Chicago in 1975, selling its property to DePaul and several dozen lucky row-house buyers.

The restaurant trained and employed Louie Atsaves's three sons, who took it over when he died of a stroke. George and Christ had graduated with business degrees from DePaul, and Pete had one from Northwestern; their children also worked in the restaurant as they were growing up. Christ's son Louie graduated from Purdue with a degree in business and chucked his job at the commodities exchange to take over when his Uncle George retired six or seven years ago.

"It's quiet in here, isn't it?" Pete said.

Kind of like before a wake starts, I said.

He nodded.

Just then someone tapped at the window. Pete let in the bartender Chick, a big, gregarious Italian. "Mark just left," Pete told him. "That's the other bartender," he said. Both men have worked at the Seminary for more than 20 years.

They made a mental list of other employees. "Jeannie, she's been here 30 years. Yvonne's over that." I asked about Kay, an unfailingly cheerful blond waitress. "She was here 35 years when she retired," Pete said. Into the room walked a short dapper man wearing a dark suit and a bowler, whom I'd seen around the place for years. It was another Pete, one of the cooks.

"How long were you here?" the boss asked him.

"Twenty-six years," he said, suddenly looking very forlorn.

Pete Atsaves looked at me. "You know, we've all really grown up together here," he says. So much for that theory about the help robbing the place blind. Or for the one about the new management for that matter.

It must have been hard to close, I said.

Pete nodded slowly. "It just became a nonprofitable situation," he began. "Business wasn't really that bad, but we were paying out more than we were taking in, it's as simple as that. Salaries, food, rent, everything. Everything keeps going up, but we haven't raised the prices for six years, have we, Chick?"

Chick took over. "Our drink prices are still the lowest in the neighborhood of places of this caliber. We're even lower than the Parkway on some things. Our VO is $2.50, our CC is $2.50; our martini, which is a rock glass full of gin or vodka, is $1.75."

"It's partly the economy," Pete continued. "And it's the ethnic thing. People now say, 'Let's go Mexican, let's go Italian, let's go Greek.' I know; I like to go to those places, too."

Chick mentioned people cooking at home, "doing the barbecue thing. People can't afford to come out so much now," he added.

"The major change in terms of receipts began three or four years ago," Pete said. "You know, it's been like that cartoon of the graph with the line going down, consistently declining. And then once in a while you'd get a nice comeback and think things are getting better.

"It's just unexplainable. We ask our help; we ask everybody. They all have different opinions. 'Make it a steak house.' 'Make it a cafe.'

"Sure, we had people who advised us, told us to do certain things with the menu and all that. It helped for a while, about six years ago when we opened back up.

"We tried to modernize it. We didn't expect a million yuppies to come here: we have no jukebox, we have no games. We just have people who are serious about getting a good meal and a good drink."

The lunch counter, I said. People have said taking it out was a big mistake.

"Walgreen's and everybody got rid of the counter," Pete replied. People want tables and booths. There were zero people sitting at the counter--at rush hour. The ones who sat there late at night, it was a coffee situation.

It was past noon, and Pete asked, "You want me to throw a cheeseburger on? I turned the grill on earlier."

I followed him into the yellow-tiled kitchen and watched him take two half-pound ovals of beef in waxed paper from a door in the bank of stainless-steel refrigerators. The lean meat sizzled on the grill, which was as wide as the four ovens and broiler beyond.

Beyond the kitchen was a door opening into an office I'd never noticed. "My brother Christ is the main man here," Pete said, looking toward the office. "Christ and I and Louie--we put our own money into it for a while, hoping."

I asked about George Mitchell, the manager.

"He's recovering; a blocked artery."

I'd heard, I said.

"The doctors are trying medication instead of surgery, and they told him to take an aspirin a day, too, even with his ulcers. He just has to have a little food before."

George, he tells me, graduated from Budlong elementary school and Amundsen high school, just like the Atsaves brothers and their sister; he came to work as the restaurant's manager in 1950.

"More than half the people thought he was the owner," Pete said.

"People thought that because he was more noticeable. People at night didn't think so," he said quietly, with uncharacteristic pride, "because I'm always on the floor." He turned the burgers and laid slices of American cheese across them.

"I've been here over 30 years on nights; never on daytime unless somebody else gets sick or goes on vacation. I've been here all my life, on the night beat."

We carry our plates back to the booth, and I mention how sudden the closing seems.

Yes and no, Pete says. "Among other things, we needed a new dishwasher. The license period is a few days away--liquor especially; you've got to renew every six months, and it's expensive."

The phone rang, as it had every so often--longtime customers and curious passersby wanting to know what was happening or how George Mitchell was. Pete moved to the end of the bar to get it.

"That was Oy Vay Bagels," he said, walking back to the booth. "You can get your bagels from your regular bakery, but these are better, so we take the trouble and pay a little more. We notified most people--there must be 40 or 50 different suppliers. Soft-drink mix, meat, bread, coffee, ice cream, condiments, napkins--anything you can look at."

It was a delicious burger, and I said so.

"We always get a lot of compliments on our beef," he said, still using the present tense. "Our turkey, too. Never here, that other stuff. Sometimes we've roasted two turkeys a day, and we have it available every day, even late at night."

I told Pete I had to get going. "You know," he said, "maybe people kind of took the Seminary for granted.

"It's not that there are a lot of Seminarys around here, but there are a lot of places, and each one hacks away at you a little. Sometimes, I think, people think they can come here any time, and they'll find what they like. Now, we're proud of that, but maybe there just weren't that many people doing that anymore."

I asked, as he opened the door for me, what would happen next.

"We'll know inside of a month, for sure," he said. "We've had people call and want to buy it. We may just decide to reopen it, too--but we'd probably change it a little. Don't ask me right now what; I really don't know.

"Everything is for sale, even Sears Tower," he said lightly. "If somebody came along with a great offer, we'd probably sell."

Within a few more days, the list of reasons the Seminary closed had expanded to include (a) the musty smell that made the day side increasingly unpleasant, (b) an imperceptible decline in the quality of the food, and (c) George Mitchell. George Mitchell helps explain the love-hate relationship lots of people seem to have had with the restaurant.

George generally parked his battered old station wagon, "Seminary Restaurant" painted on its side, either on Lincoln or across the street, on Fullerton. Once inside, he patrolled the place with a distinctive shuffle, from the pass-through to the kitchen to the front door and back again, watching people with what many considered an accusatory glare.

While he might wrap an arm around the shoulder of an older woman, giving her a squeeze and a "Hi, baby," he tended to alienate other women and some men in the place. It was said that George was the reason all the waitresses, even those of a certain age, had to walk into the 1980s wearing black micro-mini skirts with their white blouses and black aprons.

George had virtually chased off this customer or that, usually for what observers considered honest mistakes or simple misunderstandings. Sometimes people would boycott the place in protest.

Once I stayed away a long time after being the object of his scorn. I'd gone in one early evening and ordered the liver special with a half-portion each of grilled onions and bacon. One waitress had suggested it as a compromise for a tough decision, and I'd assumed it was one more of the off-the-menu accommodations. I was wrong.

George walked over to my table that night, grabbed the check, and began shouting at me for having tried to get something for nothing.

I stopped eating, mortified, and quietly asked how much more I owed. But his tirade had become a performance, and he didn't answer. I collected my coat and my papers, noticed the waitress cowering with a coffee pot behind the counter, put down a tip, paid my bill, and closed the door on George's ranting.

I avoided the place for several years after that, except when I could see Gus Papageorge, the night manager, sitting at the counter having coffee and a cigarette with his Sun-Times.

Then one late afternoon I went back. George was back at the kitchen window, and I sat down without looking in his direction, apprehensive about what he might do or say.

Not long after I turned and saw George standing behind me, smiling broadly. "Haven't seen you around for a while," he said cheerfully. We exchanged pleasantries, and he went away.

"Friend of yours?" asked my companion.

I nodded and shrugged. George reminded me of someone I knew as a child. Maybe he reminded others of one mercurial authority figure or another. Maybe George knew sooner than anyone else what all of us younger people would mean for this neighborhood and his restaurant.

A week or so after the closing, I bumped into a friend in Peter's Restaurant, just east on Fullerton (no relation). Our conversation turned to the Seminary and George Mitchell.

"Don't forget it was George who let the gypsies stay," he said. Back in the 60s, large women would sit in the Seminary chattering under clouds of smoke, usually in the huge, circular corner booth that could seat several of them and a half dozen children. Sometimes one or two of the littler children would be curled up asleep across their generous laps.

Exotic pronunciations as well as smoke came from the red lips of these women whose hair, except for dark roots that sometimes showed, matched the heavy gold jewelry that hung above their low-cut blouses. Once in a while they would be joined by a slender man, who we all assumed worked as a musician.

The gypsies left the neighborhood when the area around Southport and Lincoln, where they reportedly lived, went upscale.

I went into Aetna Bank right after I finished my breakfast at Peter's that morning, and I was waiting in line when I glanced toward the door. A familiar figure was advancing slowly into the lobby.

I walked over to George Mitchell and said hello. "How are you feeling?" I asked.

"Oh, so-so," he said. "I was in Northwestern, you know." He looked very frail and vulnerable.

I nodded and told him how sorry I was about the Seminary.

"They called to tell me, on Tuesday," he said. He seemed proud to have been among the first to know.

A couple of days ago I called Pete Atsaves to ask about the latest rumor, that a McDonald's was moving in.

"That will never happen," he said firmly. "I would have told you that. And neither is a Bakers Square--that's the other one people have told us is coming in." He chuckled.

"But we are going to sell," he said slowly. "We've heard from a number of buyers. It will be to whoever comes up with the best deal. I can't say yet who, but it won't be those two."

I asked him what they would all do.

He laughed a little. "We have no idea," he said. "Probably take a long vacation. And probably retire."

But Louie?

"He's been trading. He can go back to that."

Almost as an afterthought, certainly as a habit, he added, "Come by anytime."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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