George Lemperis keeps things lively at Palace Grill
Covering a hockey game means a 14-hour day for some reporters.
It normally begins with a 10:30 a.m. skate and it isn't over until driving home after midnight.
Those who cover Blackhawks games are lucky, though, because the middle of the day is often filled with good food, amazing coffee, plenty of laughter and a chance to see our good friends at the Palace Grill.
It's a tradition that goes back to when Tim Sassone was covering the Hawks for The Daily Herald until his untimely death in March 2014. When I got on the beat in 2015 and asked where the best place to go for lunch was, there was no question: The Palace.
The restaurant, located just a few blocks east of the United Center, is owned by perhaps the biggest Hawks fan on the planet in George Lemperis. The 61-year-old Lane Tech graduate has been in charge since 1979.
You've never met anybody like George. He's loud, boisterous, engaging, thoughtful, extremely generous and one of the best damn joke tellers in the world. In fact, George is so good that he's hosted a couple stand-up comedy nights at the Palace. George tells the jokes while his patrons howl -- and sometimes cringe -- at the adult-only humor.
There isn't a whole lot of laughter at the Palace of late, however, with the coronavirus crushing small business owners all over the country. George is doing his best to keep the Palace afloat by offering takeout service and delivering within a 3-mile radius.
"My biggest concern are my employees," George said recently. "You've got all these people that work in these offices who are able to work from home. ...
"If I don't flip eggs and I don't sell cheeseburgers, my employees don't make any money. I don't care about me. I will be OK. The whole thing is my employees. The reality is I need my employees to be safe. I want them to be safe."
The Palace is like a shrine to the Hawks, with beautiful framed jerseys of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Stan Mikita, Denis Savard and Jeremy Roenick. There are also dozens of photos, some of which include George with the Stanley Cup from when the Hawks brought it by during their championship seasons.
With laughter in short supply these days, it's time to tell some of the classic stories from a restaurant that's been open since 1938. So, sit back and enjoy as we let George talk about how the Palace became a Hawks haven, how Chris Chelios once basically wrecked the place and how it's an honor and a privilege to find a knife in front of you with a sign that reads: "Knife rental, $25."
George has always been a huge Blackhawks fan. But it wasn't until he befriended John "Spider" Webb in 1980 that players began regularly showing up at the Palace.
Webb was in charge of the crew that transitioned the Stadium from hockey to basketball, and vice versa. One day Webb brought Keith Magnuson in for a meal. Then Denis Savard showed up. Then another player. And another and another.
Before long, George was golfing and going out to bars with Chelios and Roenick, and he found himself attending more and more games.
"From that point on it became like a love affair," George says.
Despite that fact, however, the Palace's inside walls remained heavily decorated with Bulls memorabilia from the 1990s title teams.
"Nobody was a Blackhawk fan," George said of the early 2000s.
Things began to change in 2008 as the Hawks started to improve and a new era of stars arrived.
"At one point there were 15 of them sitting there," George said. "Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were rookies. Kane would come in at age 18 and order a cheeseburger and a chocolate shake. That's before I became friends with his father. They'd come in and nobody knew who they were."
During the 2009-10 season, the Hawks produced a five-minute video of Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd going to practice at Johnny's IceHouse East and then making the 151-foot drive to the Palace to have lunch.
They sat down at the counter -- in full uniform -- ordered their food and started chatting up the customers. Versteeg looks past Ladd to a young fan wearing a Toews jersey and says: "Did you hear Tazer hates dogs, children and old people?"
"Not a very good role model," Ladd says before taking a large bite out of his "heartstopper" burger.
It's a perfect snapshot of the Palace -- a place to joke around and laugh, and never take yourself too seriously.
Moments later, Versteeg and Ladd jumped over the counter, grabbed two plates each and delivered them to customers. They then announced that the Hawks were picking up the tab for everyone's meal.
"That's when things really, really took off," George said.
After the Blackhawks were beaten 2-1 in overtime in Game 5 of the 1995 conference finals by the Detroit Red Wings, most of the team went straight from the airport to Chelios' bar. Hours later, someone had a thought: Hey, let's go to the Palace and have some breakfast.
So that's exactly what they did. George arrived at about 4:30 a.m. to begin his day and noticed cars and trucks parked everywhere, even on the sidewalk.
"I said, 'What the (heck) is this?" George recalled. "Then I go into the restaurant and just about the whole Chicago Blackhawk hockey team was there. Chris Chelios was behind the counter and he was cooking breakfast for everybody ... Jeremy Roenick, Eddie Belfour, Steve Smith. Unbelievable. Unbelievable morning."
Now, you might be wondering: How the heck did they get in?
As it happened, one of George's employees couldn't sleep that night and was there when the players arrived. They knocked, he opened and the rest is history.
"I walked into an absolute (freaking) mess," George says. "That was a really great moment and a really great time."
$25 for a knife?
If you've been tied up at the Palace, consider yourself part of the family. Because George needs to know you can take a joke.
Let's explain: For the better part of two decades, Ricardo Contreras -- one of George's longtime employees -- wraps twine through an unsuspecting customer's chair. Then around their belt. Back through the chair. And he ties it into multiple knots.
All while you're eating and talking, most likely to George!
Hall of Fame announcer Mike "Doc" Emrick's has been victimized. As has Kane's father. And Toews' father.
As for yours truly? Yep, it's happened to me too.
The victim then finds a knife near them with a sign that reads: "Knife rental, $25."
"And on the weekend it's 50 bucks," George points out.
There are dozens of good stories, including one where six writers were tied up at once. Emrick was spared that day, though, because he had sweatpants on.
With great gusto, George then tells about the time Ricky got Toews' dad.
"Bryan Toews had never been tied before," George said. "One day Mr. Kane said, 'You've got to tie Bryan up.' So we tied Bryan up and I go, 'We got him!'
"But Pat didn't realize that he was tied up at the same time. ... Bryan Toews was laughing like you've never laughed in your life before. He was pounding the table.
"But he had no idea that he was tied up too. So a little while later, when he went to get up, he was tied to the table. It was epic. It was just so funny."
On March 11, Emrick, who beat prostate cancer in 1991, treated six writers to his annual Cancer Survivors Lunch. It's a particularly special day for George as well as he beat cancer in 2006.
Business was already down 25 percent at that point and the next day the NHL announced the suspension of its season. Then Gov. J.B. Pritzker limited restaurants to carryout service only.
Now, it's eerily quiet inside the Palace.
"At this point I would give anything if it was just the shutdown of the NHL," George said.
The Palace has been in operation for 82 years and George hopes a federal relief package will help it continue into the decades to come.
"I will try to get everything that I can get," said George, who is posting weekly specials on his Facebook page. "Business started falling off the first of March and it got significantly less as time went on.
"I don't know. I'm hoping to survive. I'm expecting to survive. But I will tell you it's a huge hit."