North Avenue breakfast icon closes after 57 years due to the pandemic
The breakfast spot with the huge sign in Old English font doubled as a time capsule.
Regulars of Olde North Pancake House near West Chicago could turn back the clock to the roadside restaurants of yesteryear.
Cocooned from the busy state highway outside the front door, families sat down for meals in wooden spindle chairs. Antiques and a tall ship model graced the mantle of the brick fireplace in the middle of the dining room. Gut-busting German apple pancakes came with a sprinkling of confectioners' sugar.
If it felt a little like a trip to a Wisconsin getaway, that's because the namesake of the iconic Millie's Restaurant in Delavan near Lake Geneva started the North Avenue fixture in 1963 before recreating the Old World coziness on a much larger scale at the tourist destination that shuttered in 2013.
Olde North would survive the gradual expansion of Route 64 from a two-lane stretch into a six-lane thoroughfare. But it couldn't weather the economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pancake house has closed its doors after 57 years in business, bringing a history of family traditions to a nostalgic end.
"We have seen many people come through our restaurant," second-generation owner Rick Horan said. " Our policy is car seats to college. Many generations have come celebrating holidays, anniversaries, birthdays."
The original owner modeled the decor after Boston's Old North Church, where lanterns hung in the steeple in 1775 warned patriots of the movement of British troops on the eve of the Revolutionary War.
The restaurant opened with that colonial style just four years after the incorporation of the village of Carol Stream. It had three different owners before Horan's mother, Alma, took over the business in 1973.
"I was born and raised in the industry since I was 9," her son, 57, said.
Also home to a Friday night fish fry for over 30 years, Olde North owed its longevity to long-serving employees and menu favorites cooked entirely in-house, Horan said.
"We've put a lot of employees through college to go on and have very successful careers," said Horan, who began operating the restaurant in 1986. "I've had staff members work for me for up to 14 years at a time."
Carol Stream Trustee Rick Gieser, who went to Glenbard North High School with Horan, had an Olde North tradition reuniting with classmates for the waffles, corned beef hash and the throwback feel.
"The food was good. It was a good atmosphere," Gieser said. "It was priced well, and you got a quality meal."
Horan and his son, Ricky, ran carry-out dining during the coronavirus shutdown. Since June 26, the restaurant offered a mix of outdoor and in-door dining while continuing to fill carry-out orders. But the business succumbed to industry-wide pressures and closed Sunday.
"COVID-19 is something we're just not able to overcome, and it's just been too slow of a return for us to generate cash flow to keep the business going," Horan said.
It's unclear what will happen to the site near the Du-Wayne Motel. Horan is a tenant on the property. But he left open the possibility of starting another family-owned restaurant.
"It is a very emotional and trying time for us, and we hope that future endeavors will help us maybe open up something in the future," said Horan, who lives in Batavia.
His family is boxing up everything inside the restaurant and recalling memories with customers who are sharing their family photos at Olde North.
"They grew with us," Horan said.