Cafe Calbay, a breakfast and lunch favorite in downtown La Grange for 22 years, reopened this week after being closed for three months because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cafe Calbay, a breakfast and lunch favorite in downtown La Grange for 22 years, reopened this week after being closed for three months because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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LA GRANGE – Seda Calbay took a quick check of her pedometer after a first day back in business Thursday.

"I hit over 21,000 steps," Calbay said. "My average is normally 3,000. I'm a little tired."

She's also overjoyed to be back.

The Cafe Calbay, a breakfast and lunch favorite in La Grange since Seda's mom Kiymet opened it with her dad 22 years ago, finally reopened Thursday after almost three months closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Starting Friday, restaurants were able to offer indoor dining as part of Phase 4 of the governor's Restore Illinois plan, with restrictions such as wearing face masks, parties of 10 or fewer people and tables six feet apart.

Cafe Calbay, 24 Burlington Ave., almost directly across the street from La Grange's downtown train station, got a head start Thursday, opening for outdoor dining.

When the state mandated that dine-in service shut down March 16, Cafe Calbay tried three days of carry-outs. But business just wasn't there, maybe $200 total, not worth putting the crew at risk, safer to wait, Calbay said. It kept closed when outdoor dining started in May, as restrictions would have limited Cafe Calbay to 3-4 tables.

"Having to invest in outdoor seating, umbrellas, we just didn't think for us it would be feasible, or to be fair to put together a skeleton crew," Calbay said. "It was a lot of back and forth, but we couldn't open until we were allowed to have indoor and outdoor. We wanted to be excited to have that same experience, to be as normal as could be, with masks."

Normal, for Cafe Calbay, is a place where regulars come in and drink coffee from mugs with their names on them. Diners can take a seat at stools that twirl in front of the countertop, like a traditional neighborhood diner.

Kiymet Calbay's greatest joy from running the cafe is watching families grow, seeing children she knew as newborns go to college and get married. Running restaurants is in the blood. Kiymet Calbay's father ran Veli's Kofy Cup in Oak Lawn for over 30 years after immigrating from Albania.

In high school, Seda Calbay worked the restaurant cash register on weekends. Last year she left a career in video producing to help her mom run the place.

"For me and my mom, it was a very grueling quarantine," Calbay said. "It was every day, talking each other off the ledge, 'Is it worth it?' When I came back last year my mom was ready to sell, and I was like 'Don't sell, people love it too much' and then it's like maybe we should have. The first couple months, there was a lot of crying. We have genuine joy serving our community; that's not how we wanted to go."

Periodically, Seda and Kiymet would sit outside their restaurant during the shutdown, letting customers who were concerned that they were closing know they were OK.

With the new regulations, Cafe Calbay's usual capacity of 70 is trimmed to 17.49 people. A restaurant with a long winding counter and six tables and seven booths is down to three tables and a couple booths. Seda Calbay kidded that she's "never inhaled this much bleach in her life," as she has lately sanitizing the place.

Calbay is asking customers to wear face coverings, and stay six feet apart when possible. Disposal masks are available to hand out. Calbay had to turn down a customer who wanted to hug her hello, the new normal.

On Friday morning, the outside of Calbay's was adorned with blue, white and gold balloons to celebrate the reopening.

"We just missed everyone," Calbay said.

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