Uncommon Interview: Working at Valois, Where You ‘See Your Food’

“He seems like a pretty down-to-earth man, he does come visit now. It’s difficult now with his whole entourage.”

By Eileen Li

Valois, where Hyde Parkers have ‘seen their food’ for almost 100 years, is a local landmark, most famously frequented by President Barack Obama.

Manager Gianni Colamussi started working at the restaurant 7 years ago when he married into the family of the decades-long owner, Spiros Argiris. The Maroon sat down with Colamussi to talk about the restaurant’s history, the changing environment of 53rd Street, and Obama victory breakfasts.

The Chicago Maroon: What are some of the changes you’ve noticed in years you’ve been here?

Gianni Colamussi: [The family] has owned it now for about 40 years. For myself in the past seven years I’ve seen a lot of changes in foot traffic on 53rd street here. I think the economy had something to do with it. Hyde Park changed a lot, brought in seven or eight new restaurants…. The customer base has been a lot of the same. We’ve lost a lot of regular customers due to parking issues, but we’ve also gained some other customers from the University, the hotel, the employees at the building next door, so it basically doesn’t quite balance out but it’s helped.

CM: Who are some of your famous customers?

GC: Obama [is], obviously, one of them. Mayors coming in way back when, Harold Washington came in, Rahm Emanuel came in, Pat Quinn used to come in. We’ve seen some pro ball players, Bill Cartwright has been in, I’ve got a picture with him. I’ve seen somebody from American Idol that was in here. I’ve got a picture with someone from the show Sex and the City. [There’s] a wide array—actors, sports players, politicians, students, regular doctors and lawyers in the neighborhood.

CM: I know you hosted a victory breakfast for Obama both times he got elected. What was the atmosphere during that like?

GC: The first term win, we actually had a free steak and egg breakfast for everybody. The atmosphere was pretty crazy, there was a line here out the door, down to Lake Park and around the corner. So we did that all day up until… we had to shut the door down probably around 12, just because there were shifts changing and, you know, we had to cut it at some point. The second time around we offered $5 steak and eggs and it was basically the same response, there was a line around Lake Park.

CM: Have you met Obama?

GC: I have met him several times, yes.

CM:Has he been here since he’s become president?

GC: Oh yes, yes he’s been here several times since then.

CM: I’m guessing he’ll come by when he’s out of office.

GC: Yeah, we hope so. He seems like a pretty down-to-earth man, he does come visit now. It’s difficult now with his whole entourage. They have to shut down 53rd, once you’re in you’re in [and] if you’re out you’re out, there’s not much traffic after that, but it’s definitely history-making.

CM: Who are some of your most loyal customers?

GC: We’ve got a lot of police officers that are all regulars. The gentleman standing up right there, he’s an actor, writer, director, producer, he’s in every day…. This gentleman here has been coming here for years, probably 30 years. It’s pretty crazy, there’s a lot of regular customers we see on a daily basis.

CM: A lot of UChicago students come to Valois, but they’re only in Hyde Park for a few years. What do they not know about Valois or the neighborhood?

GC: I don’t know what they don’t know but what I do like is that once they’re gone they come back to Chicago to visit, to Hyde Park, and Valois is actually a staple for them. It’s one of the first things they want to do. We have tons of students, ex-students…who come in here with their luggage in hand before going to their hotel…we’ve got customers that come in, people who graduated, alumni from 20, 30 years ago who still come in, you know, they share stories.

CM: When these people from all over the world come here, what do they ask you?

GC: Simple questions, questions like you’re asking. A lot of these guys from out of the country want to know more about the president, what he’s like, what his favorite breakfasts are, what does he get when he’s here, how is he professionally, how is he personally, what your opinion is on his presidency, that kind of stuff.

CM: Is there anything I didn’t ask about that you think would be interesting for students to know?

GC: It’s interesting to know the current owners have been here, it’s been in the same family for a good 40, 50 years. The restaurant has been here since 1921, so it’s one of the oldest in Chicago. I would probably consider it a landmark, although I haven’t done the research on that yet to make sure, but it’s gotta be considered a landmark given its longevity and location.

Another thing a lot of the newer people don’t know, a lot of the students, is that this post right here (a column in the restaurant)…is the break point of where the restaurant used to be. From this post, Valois was on this side and we’d be sitting in a liquor store right now. This was an actual wall and in 2002 they tore the wall down and make this one big location.

Another thing a lot of people might notice, but might not know a lot about, is the actual mural we have up on the ceiling here. It actually shows the town, the small town, where the owners are from, a mountainside village in Greece. On this side, they show the mountains they crossed over to get to the United States. On this side they show the Chicago Skyline and here, a little Hyde Park, Promontory Point. If you notice the murals here…they are all Hyde Park landmarks.