A few blocks east of the United Center sits a place unlike any you’ve been before. “Sorry we’re open”, an unusual but hilarious sign greets you in the window facing the 1400 block of West Madison Street. Appropriately, the other side reads, “Thank God we’re closed.”
Once inside and seated, your eyes wander the walls soaking in a cornucopia of Blackhawks memorabilia detailing the team’s greatest players, moments, and achievements.
“You walk in there and immediately feel like this restaurant was placed inside a Blackhawks museum, with memorabilia everywhere,” NBC Sports Chicago Blackhawks pre/postgame host Pat Boyle said.
Seats at the long counter on top of the kitchen serve as a time portal to the friendly neighborhood diners of old.
The radiant, red sweaters, photos of the good old days, and tributes to future hall of famers, create an unrivaled ambiance.
“It kind of feels like United Center East,” Blackhawks TV play-by-play announcer Pat Foley said.
Meals at The Palace are a long-time ritual for Blackhawks media, alumni, parents, and even players.
Patrick Kane’s father, Patrick Kane Sr., never misses more than a few home games a year. Last season he made all 41 and he stopped at The Palace before each one.
“It's part of gameday,” Kane Sr. said. “Having breakfast and coming over for the morning skate. I'm just comfortable there. I think the food is great, I think the atmosphere is incredible.”
Like father, like son. The younger Kane used to order sandwiches after morning skates.
“We were practicing then we were going to the airport,” Kane recalled of a moment from his rookie season. “[Dustin Byfuglien] asked if I wanted to get something to eat, so ended up going with him to The Palace. We got burgers and shakes and fries, stuff like that.
“It's kind of an interesting choice. It was fun to go there for the first time and see how much they love the Blackhawks.”
Now the Blackhawks give players post-skate meals.
“There aren’t enough hours between the morning skate and a game to take a trip to the Bahamas to recharge so a visit to The Palace is the next best thing,” said Blackhawks senior writer Chris Kuc.
In 1938, the original DeMars Grill of the Chicago chain opened in the spot The Palace now occupies. It was named The Palace Grill in 1950 when DeMars moved across the street. George Lemperis, 61, is the current owner. His cousins bought the place in 1955 and he and his father, Peter, took over as equal partners in 1979.
A maintenance worker at Chicago Stadium, John “Spider” Webb, began bringing Hawks players like Keith Magnuson and Denis Savard over in the early ‘80s. The rest is Blackhawks history.
“There’s a cool picture of the old guys: (Chris) Chelios, (Tony) Amonte, Jeff Shantz [and Bob Probert]," three-time Stanley Cup champion turned broadcaster Patrick Sharp said. "They’re wearing their hockey equipment sitting at the [counter] having breakfast so a couple of us decided to do that with the Hawks, I think it was the 2010 year, maybe 2009, with half of our hockey equipment on and we had breakfast.
“I thought that was pretty fun. It’s just a great place. It feels like home when you walk in there, being a part of the Blackhawks family.”
“Is George in?”
Sit at The Palace for a few hours on gamedays when the Hawks are home and you may hear dozens of people ask that very question.
George took over the restaurant after his father suddenly passed from complications during a surgical procedure in 1992.
“It was quite a shock that he died,” Lemperis said. “My dad was exactly like me, he was a storyteller. One of the funniest and wittiest men I ever met in my life.”
George is the heart of The Palace and a lifelong Blackhawks fan.
“Imagine if Norm from Cheers owned the bar,” Jimmy Greenfield, Blackhawks beat writer for the Chicago Tribune said. “That’s what it’s like with George. He’s always there, everyone’s always happy to see him and a call of “George!” rings out whenever he walks over to say hello.”
And like Cheers, George knows everybody’s name.
“I’m just a restaurant guy,” Lemperis said. “For some reason, I remember people’s names, I remember their faces. I’m a people person. It’s just a gift.”
He has jet-black hair, a big, booming voice and a frame to match. The surreal juxtaposition of the intimidating doppelgänger for an undiscovered Dick Tracy villain being a gracious host with a Rolodex of jokes (that sometimes get recycled) is something to behold.
“He'll almost remind you of like a big cartoon character or something,” Kane said. “The way he looks and the way he acts. He's an amazing man. He's as nice of a guy as you'll ever find.”
Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick, NBC Sports’ lead NHL play-by-play announcer, holds his annual “Cancer Survivors’ lunch” at The Palace. ‘Doc’, free of prostate cancer since 1991, treats Hawks writers to a meal celebrating another year without the disease. George, cancer-free after three rounds of chemotherapy in 2006, usually joins the group for the special occasion.
“An old-fashioned restauranteur, somebody that believes in sitting near the customers and if they’re willing, entertaining them at the same time,” Emrick said of Lemperis.
Blackhawks beat writers learned you never know who you’ll find George entertaining.
“A few years ago, a few of us went over to The Palace after the morning skate, and George was at the corner table with a man who was cackling hysterically, tears streaming down his face,” Mark Lazerus, senior writer for The Athletic and former Sun-Times Hawks beat writer said. “I’ve never seen a man laugh so hard in my life.
“George invites us to sit down. I then realized it was Tom Thibodeau, then still the coach of the Bulls. A very serious man. I had never seen him smile before, and here he was, literally slapping his knees he was laughing so hard.”
“The best damn joke teller on planet Earth,” said John Dietz, Blackhawks beat writer for the Daily Herald. “Who else could make Joel Quenneville, Pat Kane Sr., Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick, Chris Chelios, Jeremy Roenick and dozens of other hockey dignitaries roar in unabashed laughter? Nobody.”
WGN Radio Blackhawks play-by-play announcer John Wiedeman, who often says hi to George during broadcasts, says George “could be a standup comedian no problem.”
As most good comedians can read the room, George can read the table (and others within earshot) and adjust his material to the appropriate rating.
"He's a prankster, he likes to joke,” Andrew Shaw said. “Some jokes aren't appropriate to be [repeated], but he's got some good jokes for sure."
“There are times I have to tone things down,” George said. “But I’m not going to alter who I am because of somebody. I’m a family guy. Family is very important. People come in with their kids, their wives, I can’t tell the jokes I tell you guys.”
Bringing friends and family to The Palace to meet George is something his regulars tend to do, maybe to prove that the oasis exists.
“Anyone that I bring from Buffalo, we meet there and if George knows we're going to be there he puts a show on for me and the table,” Kane Sr. said. “Some of the people at the table walk away and say, 'That was the best experience I've had in Chicago this weekend.' Whether they've come for a hockey game or events, you laugh for half an hour.”
Like the local diners staving off gentrification, George is part of a dying breed of entertainer.
“George is one of the few people that actually tells jokes anymore,” Emrick said. “There aren’t many people that have jokes to tell. You realize that after all these years actual joke telling is pretty much gone, it’s a lost art, but George still has it. Every time you come in, he’s got a new one.”
The Palace staff operates with the same heart, warmth, brutal honesty and peculiar hilarity that George sets the table with.
“I would never act like this at another place, but here it seems like it's okay to have that sarcastic whip, it's not frowned upon here, where some places it's not ladylike,” Brandy Scott, a Palace server for three years said.
You might want to keep an eye on dining room manager Ricardo Contreras, the very, very sneaky 22-year Palace employee has a way of tying things together.
“They crammed a bunch of tables together and there are eight or 10 of us sitting there, and we’re all waiting for Ricky to tie ‘Doc’ to his chair,” Lazerus said.
“The rest of us all had been victimized before, so it was Doc’s turn. Ricky, who’s basically a ninja — in seven years, I’ve seen dozens of people get tied up, and I’ve only once ever caught Ricky in the act — managed to loop a string around Doc’s belt loop and around the chair.
“George saunters over with a knife stuck through a piece of paper. The paper reads, ‘Knife rental, $25.’ He just puts it down on the table and starts chatting. ‘Doc’ asks him what’s with the knife, and George just deadpans, ‘Never know when you’re gonna need a knife.’ George tells some off-color jokes, making ‘Doc’ blush and howl at the same time, and we all sit around and chat for a while.
“George gets up to leave and leaves the knife on the table. ‘Doc’ keeps asking what’s up with the knife, and we all just shrug. George comes back a few times, shifts the knife on the table to call attention to it. 'Doc' keeps asking what it’s for, George keeps saying, ‘Never know when you’re gonna need a knife.’
“George comes and goes at least three or four times. We’re sitting there for at least 45 minutes. ‘Doc’ hasn’t gotten up yet, and he hasn’t gotten a straight answer on the knife.
“This drags on forever. FOREVER. It was excruciating but hilarious. Finally, after what felt like a week and a half, ‘Doc’ gets up to leave, and of course, there’s a chair tied to his butt. George casually strolls over. He picks up the knife. ‘50 bucks now.’”
Everyone has been tied to a chair.
“Jonathan Toews’ father has gotten it and of course Patrick (Kane)’s father has gotten it,” Emrick said. “Several other people are either unwittingly caught or know it’s coming and still don’t realize they’ve been had until they get up from their chair.
“One time, Ricardo was especially acrobatic that day and the whole table got it. There must have been six of us there and everybody got it.”
Another time, Ricardo tied a table of four cops to their chairs, only to watch them receive a call and jump up in a hurry, attached to their chairs.
If you’re lucky enough to have George sit down at your table, you might hear about one of the 13 times the Stanley Cup has been in the restaurant or about the days when Chris Chelios would cook breakfast for teammates and friends, extending a late night at The Palace, where George kept a keg for the players.
“We knew what time George would open,” said Chelios, whose Chili Bar wasn't far from The Palace on Madison. “He would have that early morning shift of people and we’d go in there and he’d let us cook breakfast. He had a special stash in the back of beer on tap if we wanted to take it. That was part of our days off.”
One day George walked in at 4:30 a.m. to find the whole team eating breakfast, cooked by Chelios, after being eliminated by the Red Wings in the 1995 Western Conference Finals the night before.
There’s the time a nervous George called Blackhawks President and CEO John McDonough to make sure it was okay that The Palace had an outdoor sign reading “The Unofficial Restaurant of the Chicago Blackhawks” with the team logo. George didn’t think to check before putting it up and asked McDonough to come by the restaurant so they could speak.
McDonough stopped by soon after.
“Look, I redid my vestibule and I put the Blackhawks logo up there and I didn’t ask for permission,” George told him. “If you want, I’ll take it down.”
“That’s why you called me here?” McDonough asked. “There’s only one thing wrong with this… You take that ‘Unofficial’ down and you put ‘The Official’ because that’s how we consider you.”
Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Blackhawks easily on your device.