Patrons get more than good food at Torrence Avenue diner
by Melanie Jongsma
LANSING, Ill. (November 16, 2017) – A skillet called “Melting Pot” is the first item on the battered menu card, and that’s an accurate description of the atmosphere at this little Torrence Avenue diner. Pete Nicholas, the owner of the Golden Crown, came to America from Greece in 1956. This morning, wearing his kitchen apron, he sits in a booth across from a gray-haired customer, and they chat in accents that are not midwestern. In the next booth, a large white man in an American flag jacket orders “the usual.” Behind me, a distinguished black man in business casual is greeted by name. In a back room, a few Dutch retirees have gathered for coffee and conversation. Over the counter, the tinny speakers play WXRT.
When Janet Gatto and her almost-three-year-old son Joel enter the north doors, diners and staff alike raise a chorus of greeting. Everyone knows them—Joel is a third-generation Golden Crown regular, and this melting-pot crowd has been watching him grow up week by week.
“My dad ate here every day once he retired,” explains Janet while coffee is poured and menus are handed out. “He lived in Beecher by then, and he drove here every day for breakfast.” Janet’s father, James Olsen, had been a regular at the Crown while he lived in Lansing, and Janet remembers coming here with him on weekends as a little girl. In fact, this restaurant is where James first met his wife Sharon, who waitressed here when it was an A&W. The Schultzes, owners of the A&W, introduced them.
So it was natural that James would keep coming here for breakfast, even after his wife died, even after he retired. Even after his own memory began fading. When he was no longer able to live alone, Janet and her husband Andy brought him into their home, and they proactively took charge of his car keys.
“So then I started bringing him here every day,” nods Janet.
Like any new routine, those daily drives were a disruption at first. But Janet could see that the Crown was a place where her dad could reconnect with his old self. The friendly faces and familiar conversational patterns surrounded him and carried him. And Janet got swept up in the banter too.
She was pregnant with Joel at that time, and the diner became a place where Dad’s history and the new baby’s future could both be a shared joy.
James Olsen died last month. Janet still comes to the Golden Crown about three days a week.
“These are my people,” she says.
On this day we happen to be here between “shifts” —there’s an “early shift” of customers who grab breakfast on their way to work, and a “late early shift” that starts populating the booths after 8:30am. Janet’s dad used to come in early, but now, with Joel, Janet typically arrives later. The crowd is sparse at the moment, so the waitresses have time to chat with the regulars. Stories are swapped about jobs and holidays and adventures at the vet. Plans are made to try the new Unlock A Lock Escape Room in Lansing. Joel toddles around like a miniature shift supervisor, checking on the patrons and helping out the staff. Since he has been coming here since before he was born, he is the Golden Crown’s golden boy.
The crowd of 8:30am diners used to number up to 45, and in a wave of nostalgia the waitresses begin reciting names of regulars who aren’t here any more. Burt. Harold who drove the school bus. Al the painter. Archie. Jerry. Most lived in Lansing. Some were retired or widowed. All sought camaraderie, whether they realized it or not. That’s what the Crown provides. Not just coffee. Connection.
Owner Pete Nicholas is not the most obvious personality at the Golden Crown, but his matter-of-fact hospitality is probably the foundation of the community that has persisted here for his 40-year term. (He bought the place from “Mr. Big” in 1978.) Pete is 89 years old. He’s not necessarily thinking of retiring, but he also doesn’t have any kind of succession plan in place. Pete’s daughter, Nancy Karegianes, helps out with the books, and Pete’s nephew, Greg Madouras, serves as chef. Both enjoy the work, but neither is necessarily interested in owning the place.
So Janet—and probably Willie and Ben and other Golden Crown customers, along with Greg and Debbie and other Golden Crown staff—is worried that whenever Pete reaches a point that he can’t run the restaurant, it will close. “If I had a million dollars, I’d buy it,” says Janet, though on some level she realizes that successful succession is not a matter of money. It isn’t money that can preserve these relationships, these people who formed a community around James Olsen, and who now do the same for his daughter and grandson.
We talk for a while about how community happens, and how to hang on, and when to let go. We wonder if letting something go is necessarily a sad thing, if change is always loss.
Perhaps the best way to honor what Pete Nicholas and the Golden Crown bring to Lansing is to simply acknowledge that it can’t be duplicated. To enjoy it while it’s here, but then release it. To recognize that everything has a season.
These are heavy questions to ponder over hash browns, but discussing them helps, too. Thinking in terms of seasons relieves some of the pressure to hang on forever.
And so, for now, in this season, we simply agree to enjoy it while we can—this moment, this community, these people, these memories. Debbie pours us another cup of coffee, and we sit back, content, while we wait for the table to be cleared and the final check to come.
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