Niles restaurants see regulars return as restrictions relax

Published 12:07 pm Wednesday, March 3, 2021

NILES – Tuesday morning, a couple walked into Prime Table Restaurant in Niles. Though masks covered their noses and mouths, the crinkles around their eyes gave away their wide smiles.

Bill Giannakakis, one of the establishment’s owners, recognized them and ushered them toward a table of their friends who were already seated and awaiting their arrival.

Across the street at Plaza Restaurant, servers like Cecelia “CG” Sanchez can spot their regulars pulling up in the parking lot and get the tables ready and coffee poured as they walk in the door.

This is a slice of Americana — one that sometimes includes the apple pie. There is community created within diners and restaurants that many have missed throughout the sporadic shut downs and capacity limits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Niles, March 1 through March 7 is Niles first Restaurant Week. On Feb. 25, the Berrien County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution making March Restaurant Month in Berrien County. Since the pandemic started, restaurants have been shut down to indoor dining completely at times, leaving workers in a challenging spot with employment and regulars without their normal visit for social interaction and a hot meal.

Now, with pandemic restrictions loosening, local restaurants are ready to welcome back their beloved regulars.

The dining room at Prime Table Restaurant, at 1915 S. 11th St., Niles, has tables removed and every other booth blocked off with a table plant to signify that it is out of service for the time being. The sounds of conversation, clinking of dishes and the smell of coffee fills the restaurant with a familiar setting many knew regularly this time last year.

Karen Martindale, a regular diner at Prime Table Restaurant, said the owners’ personal touches keep her and her husband coming back, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The owners, Nick, Mary and Bill [Giannakakis], treat you like you mean something to them,” Martindale said.

She said the fun holiday decorations remind her of a more “normal” time.

“The owners are always smiling, and they share themselves,” Martindale said. “It’s very important. Senior citizens visit and need the smile. You forget for a while what is going on in the world.”

For Martindale, her weekly meal at the restaurant is usually filled with personal touches from joking with the servers to being able to forget, for a little while, other stresses in life.

“They’ve taken time to know you and remember the little details,” Martindale said.

Bill said the ownership and staff have tried to adapt throughout the shifting landscape of the past year. As the restaurant approaches its 28th anniversary in April, Giannakakis said he is thankful for the staff and customers who have continued supporting them through this past year.

“We have staff that has been with us, not just years, but decades,” he said. “The people up front and in the kitchen, they have all stuck with us through both shut downs, which in turn gives the customer who comes in on a regular basis the same experience.”

With the implementation of the spaced-out dining room and addition of carry out and curbside service, Giannakakis said the restaurant has continued to serve many of its regulars in one way or another. The second epidemic shut down of restaurants spanned over the winter holidays, which he said made things difficult for the staff.

“It was hard because it was right before Christmas. They depend on the money,” Giannakakis said. “Better days are coming. We are doing well. The customers and staff have returned.”

The owners of Plaza Restaurant, at 1976 S. 11th St. in Niles, Tricia Rule and Julie Rudolph, know their restaurant well. Both took over ownership of the restaurant nearly 11 years ago, and prior, they had both worked there for more than 10 years each as servers.

Rule said after the first shut down in March 2020, some of their regulars seemed confused and lost.
“We had an older senior who came in twice a day during the shutdown when we did carry-out, and would try to come in and take a seat,” Rule said. “He was confused. We had to keep telling him we could get him something to-go, but we weren’t open in the dining room. He didn’t understand.”

Rudolph said there were others that would sometimes forget they were closed and drop by, wondering where everyone was. After a while, she said she saw some of their long-time regulars start to become depressed without their normal routine.

“Our regulars have met others here and become friends,” Rule said. “They meet here. It’s like their country club. For those three hours in the morning, that’s their booth.”

“They hold court,” added Rule.

When the restaurant was able to reopen the dining room, Rudolph said it was like a reunion.

Rule and Rudolph said the customers worry about one another, and now that the dining room has been reopened, will ask for updates on those they have not seen in a while.

For server Sanchez, the depression for many of the regular seniors has been noticeable. She has been a server in Niles for around 20 years, and just more than nine at Plaza Restaurant. She sees how important it is to regulars who stop in for a piece of pie and a cup of coffee for a half an hour.

“Even just getting a cup of coffee and having a half an hour of social interaction with somebody makes a huge difference in somebody’s day,” Sanchez said. “Especially for a lot of the older customers who don’t have family around here. They don’t have anyone looking after them.”

She would see some regulars for every meal throughout the day.

“If they’re not in, you wonder if they’re ok. You worry. You make a phone call to make sure they’re ok, whatever it takes,” Sanchez said. “You don’t want to go to their house and interfere or overstep your boundaries, but you also want to make sure they’re ok.”

The sense of community she has fostered and seen created within the restaurant has become even more important throughout the past year.

“Some of these customers I’ve been serving for literally 20 years,” Sanchez said. “It’s a small community.”