Cooling Off

(Maria Nelson)

“This isn’t retro, this is vintage,” says Bill Gertos, stern but smiling. Busy frying up eggs over-easy, burgers, and hashbrowns seven days a week at the 82-year old Ramova Grill, Gertos has lately taken on another role behind the counter–historian and storyteller.

Since the announcement in mid-March that his family’s Bridgeport establishment will close its doors this April, the greasy spoon has been flooded with regulars and newcomers, asking questions and enjoying one last bowl of their famous Cincinnati-style chili–chili, with or without beans, heaped over steaming pasta.

That this joint is genuine, there’s no doubt. Gertos says that while they no longer make their own soap (as they did back in the day), they still grind their own beef and cut their own fries and hashbrowns. “We literally have half a cow in the back,” he boasts.

Whereas some operations may be ashamed of such modest means, Gertos haughtily points out the phone booth with a pay phone that doubles as their business line. A calendar with handwritten employee schedule assignments hangs on the wall; a waitress carries 15 brown mugs to the front fresh from the dishwasher, slightly chipped and coffee-stained.

More importantly, the chili is the same as it has always been. “It isn’t a healthy chili, that’s why it tastes so good. It hasn’t changed a bit,” he says as he serves up bowls to eager customers.

Overall, Gertos describes the place as “just a regular diner… a place where everybody knows each other, not a place where you come and eat alone.” The counter is consistently lined with patrons who claim to have been eating at the Grill for over 30 years. “I live in here, come here probably three to four times a day,” says regular Raleigh March.

The staff shares stories about their customers, as if they were family. Otis MaHan usually stops in for breakfast, but sometimes for lunch. “Otis used to be a sock guy, he’d walk around with a big bag of socks,” describes waitress Angelica Melchor. “There are a lot of characters in here,” sums up Gertos.

The Ramova Grill, located adjacent to the Ramova Theatre and the Chicago Boxing Club on South Halsted, is set to close on April 14, though Gertos thinks it could be later, depending on specifics of the building’s sale, which haven’t been finalized. After over 50 years of work, owners Bob Gertos–Bill’s father–and Tony Dinos are simply ready to retire.

Although Gertos says this is the primary reason for the building’s sale, the restaurant’s closing is dampened by a plight familiar to the proprietors of many mom-and-pop establishments–financial difficulty caused by rising property taxes and a shift in the neighborhood’s composition. The place has been packed at meal times ever since the announcement a month ago, but Gertos says they were barely hanging on by a thread before. He rambles off neighborhood places that have recently closed–a cleaner’s on 31st Street, for example–and speaks nostalgically about a time in Bridgeport’s history when there was an average of four taverns per block.

Maureen Sullivan, a member of the community group Friends of South Halsted, also expressed sadness at what she calls an “extreme loss to the neighborhood.” For her, the closure of both the Ramova Grill and Healthy Foods Lithuanian on 32nd and Halsted in 2009, marks the “end of an era”–the end of the Bridgeport she grew up in. At the same time, she says this won’t stop her group’s  redevelopment efforts to create a small-town feel and a walkable neighborhood. Regarding reaching out to the new owners of the Ramova Grill building, Sullivan says, “We’re sure going to try–they’re investing in the community.”

Gertos, too, is enthusiastic about change. While he jokes that younger customers don’t care for their home-style specials such as chop suey with rice, he enjoys getting to know the students and “art crowd” who first started discovering the place about ten years ago. Instead of a generational disconnect throughout the neighborhood, the camaraderie goes both ways: one local artist painted Gertos’s portrait for an exhibition at the nearby Co-Prosperity Sphere. “The 11th ward used to be Daley’s enclave, and in some sense it still is. But it’s a good thing, I like change,” he says.

He, like his father, is looking forward to some time off–perhaps to spend re-living his youth partying or traveling around Europe. This is his answer to the most frequently asked question around the Grill nowadays: “What are you going to do when this place closes?”

Everyone to whom the Ramova Grill has meant something over the years has an answer. Some employees have jobs lined up at other restaurants around Chicago, and some regulars will probably frequent the Bridgeport Diner, located half a block north.

Others are less optimistic. Melchor hasn’t yet accepted jobs at other Bridgeport restaurants–she’s skeptical that the atmosphere could be as friendly. “I don’t want to see the same people but not be able to talk to them,” she says. March, who has a burger named after him (the “Raleigh Burger,” topped with mustard, pickle, and two slices of raw onion), pauses for a moment and says, “There aren’t any other neighborhood places, where you’re not sitting by yourself.”