Valois, valuable part of Hyde Park history, has struggled in the pandemic


Colin Leslie

TAKEOUT. A customer exits the Valois storefront on May 19. Many longtime customers of Valois have gotten takeout there during the pandemic. “They actually already had a set-up where before the pandemic you could get take-out,” said Seth Richardson, a customer for 20 years.

Peter Cox, Reporter

The interior of Valois is dimly lit, and where the glossy plastic tables are usually packed close together many of them have now disappeared. A black rail beginning at the door directs customers towards the cafeteria line and separates it from the eating space. Meats, eggs, pancakes and other breakfast foods fill the cafeteria lines trays and bring a mixed aroma of everything great about classic American cuisine to the entire restaurant. 

Many restaurants have struggled over the past year, the pandemic hit restaurants harder than almost any other industry, but historically significantly Valois has faced unique challenges because of its cafeteria style.

As a classic cafeteria-style restaurant, Valois patrons line up and go down a serving line with food they can select to be put on their tray, hence the restaurant’s motto: “See your food.”

Initially opened in 1921 Valois was established by a French-Canadian immigrant named William Valois and has since changed ownership and location twice. The restaurant is currently located at 1518 E. 53rd St. and owned by Spirios Argiris.  

One of the most important parts about Valois is its history with the community around it, primarily its intersection between the community of the University of Chicago and the Black population of Hyde Park and the surrounding South Side. Many influential figures from the university have frequented Valois, most famously Barack Obama who, after his victories in the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012, hosted all-day celebrations at Valois with free steak and eggs in 2008 and $5 steak and eggs in 2012. 

The first order to close restaurants took effect on March 16, 2020, and while this was an issue for all restaurants, many took advantage of the booming popularity of food delivery apps or any number of other promotions and deals to get customers to take their food home. Valois did not have this option.

“It was a bit of a curveball,” said Johnny Colamussi, a manager at Valois who has been working there for 13 years. “We took some things off the menu that weren’t doing well and we had to let some people go.” 

Despite this unprecedented situation, the restaurant made no changes other than no longer seating customers. However, they did have some options in place for people to get their food with the lockdown order, which many long-term customers took advantage of.

“They actually already had a set-up where before the pandemic you could get take-out,” said Seth Richardson, a Hyde Park resident who has been eating at Valois for 20 years and who got takeout during the pandemic. 

Takeout has been a feature of many classic American dinners for a longtime. At Valois there is a small counter to the side of the main cafeteria line where customers can get any food that they want boxed for carry-out. 

Valois is currently reopened and has strictly followed the government orders pertaining to the opening of restaurants.

Mr. Colamussi said, “Hopefully, distancing is not here to stay. We’ll leave it up to the professionals — whatever they say, we do.” 

Hyde Park is, increasingly, a rapidly changing place, and Valois stands one of the core parts of the community’s history, a superb example of its contradictions and its diversity.

Mr. Richardson said, “It’s a different vibe from, you could go to Virtue and you could go to Promontory and you can see a racially diverse crowd, but not an economically diverse crowd. You get that at Valois. It’s a mixing ground for race but also economic diversity.”