CHICAGO (WLS) -- This iconic Palace Grill restaurant, just blocks from the United Center on Chicago's Near West Side, was badly damaged by a fire overnight.
The fire broke out around 10 p.m. Thursday night. Owner George Lemperis said he started getting calls from firefighters and first responders he'd gotten to know over the years when the fire broke out, but he didn't think it was this bad. Firefighters had to cut a hole in the roof to put out the flames.
"A couple fire chief friends of mine called, and I called one back. Says, 'George, your restaurant's on fire.' So I immediately left. And I come in and I looked and I go, "Oh my God,' I mean I never would have expected this," Lemperis said. "What are you going to do?"
The Palace Grill has been in business for 86 years. While the building itself is still intact, the damage inside the restaurant is extensive and devastating.
A diner often frequented by first responders, politicians, and Blackhawks players, the iconic Palace Grill is destroyed on the inside.
"It's extensive damage," Lemperis said. "It's really, really sad. So now were are day one of the rest of my life trying to pick up the pieces and go on."
Most of the damage is in the front of the house, near the stovetops where dishes were made to order. The restaurant has been in Lemperis' family since 1955.
"This is my third child," he said. "This restaurant is a very special place in my life."
The restaurant was luckily closed at the time when flames ran through the restaurant, which is covered in memorabilia.
"It's tough. It's hard to believe a place like this, you hope it will last forever and hopefully is goes on after this," said regular Jim Moore. "It's a little surreal. It's a neighborhood staple and I feel for George and everyone who works here."
"It's a sad day, but on the other hand, I guess it's a good day. Nobody got hurt," Lemperis said.
The restaurant sits just a few blocks away from the United Center and several nearby hospitals. Residents at Rush University Medical Center have made it a tradition to come here every Friday morning.
"We were going to get an omelet that I get, the same omelet every Friday," RUSH University Medical Center resident Sierra Broad said.
"After a long week of night shift, this is sort of what we look forward to at the end of the week," RUSH resident Talib Chaudhry said. "We all come together. We all have a good time, chat it up with George."
Beloved by many in the community, customers hope it'll reopen quickly.
"How terrible. You go to a Blackhawks game. You go to the Palace Grill, and that's terrible," said September Penrod, Blackhawks fan.
"No matter how the Hawks are doing, winning, losing, no matter what, we're a tight knit group, and hearing about something like that where people like to go, it affects the group as a whole," said Blackhawks fan Patrick Sullivan.
"We were hoping to come back here every week for the next six years," RUSH resident Subhash Gutti said. "But we're hoping that Jorge with the support of the community will be able to rebuild and we hope to come back soon."
During Friday night's Blackhawks game, the broadcast included words of encouragement.
"Our hearts go out to you, George, and your family, and I know everybody wants the Palace Grill back normal," the announcer said.
Support also came from Blackhawks legend Chris Chelios at the opening of his own United Center pop-up restaurant.
"The Palace has been an institution, and George has been loved by everybody, not just Hawks fan but the community," he said. "George, we wish you the best, and get that Palace built up real quick again."
Lemperis says he's lost count of the number of calls and messages he's received, saying "I've got the greatest customers in the world."