The last supper: After more than a century on West Adams, the Berghoff turns out the lights
By Janet Rausa Fuller
March 1, 2006
How do you say goodbye to the only place you’ve ever worked in your life?
How do you say goodbye to the place you call home and to the people you call your family even if they come from all over the world and may not speak the same language as you do?
If you’re Debra Hawkins from Chicago’s West Side, or Yousef Ghusein from the Palestinian territories, or Chris Nakropoulos from Greece, you work.
They worked Tuesday, their final day as servers and cooks at the Berghoff. Among the three of them, they have logged 80 years and a lifetime of memories at the historic restaurant at 17 W. Adams.
But this was no time to reminisce. That would come after their shift. Not now, when they knew that more than 1,500 faithful diners had come for one last bite of sauerbraten with creamed spinach on the side.
In some ways, the last supper at the Berghoff felt like the thousands of others before it. It was packed, for one. There was a constant, comfortable hum in the dining room. Servers, busboys and cooks hustled, expertly weaving their way around anyone who stood in their paths.
“It’s actually a little slower than yesterday,” said Ghusein, 43, floor chef in charge of the first-floor kitchen, surveying the room.
But then, all the camera flashes were hard to ignore, coming not only from customers’ cameras and cell phones but from employees’ as well. And the hugs and handshakes, menus being autographed and people leaving in tears.
The last supper at the Berghoff did not include roast duck, escargot or seafood brochettes. They ran out of those after lunch, Ghusein said, tapping on the computer screen that tracks orders.
But no one seemed to mind much.
“I want to find my friend to say goodbye,” an elderly woman said to no one in particular, her voice and hands shaking as she went through the swinging doors connecting the bar and restaurant. “The guy with the white beard; he’s been here 50 years.”
That guy, Mike Santiago, started as a dishwasher and has worked in just about every position since, including general manager. As closing manager now, it was his job to turn out the lights.
Started at the bottom
So many other employees started, like Santiago, at the bottom. Hawkins, 42, the only full-time female server, started in 1987 as a bathroom attendant and “pantry girl” who cut bread and made coffee. She was just a toddler when Nakropoulos, 65, a Greek immigrant, began busing tables in 1967.
They all have their stories of what it’s been like working at the oldest restaurant in Chicago and what they plan to do today, or someday — go to Vegas, attend culinary school, open their own restaurant, file for unemployment, retire. But on Tuesday, all they could do was work.
‘I want to go out in style’
At 9:30 p.m., Dell Leonard, 69, of Williamsfield, and her 45-year-old son Dan were the last customers to be seated.
“I think I’m still in a state of shock,” said Dell.
Dan Leonard proceeded to order three appetizers, two soups, a roast turkey dinner and — sauerbraten.
“I want to go out in style here,” Dan told his waiter.
At 10:05 p.m. the big, black, bulb-lit sign, beckoning “The Berghoff” in red neon script, went dark.
And at 11:35, after the last diners walked out, closing manager Santiago locked the revolving doors and pulled down the gates.