BROWN: Out of the fire and back into steam tray for Byron’s Hot Dogs

on Jul20

19 July 2017 | 10:51 pm

The boarded up windows attesting to the fire that swept through Byron’s Hot Dogs on May 2 could have signaled the end of another Chicago food shrine.

I fretted as much as I went past the iconic hole-in-the-wall Irving Park Road food stand in the weeks afterward and took note of nearby real estate development activity.

We see it happen often enough. The proprietor promises with the best of intentions to “Reopen Soon,” but as weeks stretch into months, reality gradually sets in that it’s not coming back.

Byron’s owner Mike Payne told me Wednesday that closing for good was never a consideration.

Even if the place had burned to the ground, Payne said he would have rebuilt it.

“That place is my heart and soul. I have no intention of going anywhere. I tell everybody I’ll die behind the counter making hot dogs and hamburgers,” Payne said.

OPINION

Indeed, there was no cause to fret.

Byron’s reopened within the month and continues to serve the same steamed Vienna Beef hot dogs that have made the place a North Side institution—the defining characteristic of which are the lettuce, cucumbers and green peppers that Byron’s offers in addition to the traditional Chicago-style condiments.

They were doing a brisk business Wednesday for National Hot Dog Day, not that Chicagoans need a pretend holiday as an excuse to eat a hot dog, although the special price of 59 cents probably didn’t hurt.

As to that part about dying behind the counter, the 63-year-old Payne isn’t expecting that to happen any time soon either.

He was busy doing lunch prep at Byron’s other location on Lawrence Avenue when I first called. By the time I caught up with him mid-afternoon, he was delivering an urgent re-supply of hot dogs to the Irving Park stand and waiting on an emergency order of buns from the bakery.

Payne said one reason he didn’t consider closing is that he doesn’t have enough money to stop working.

The other reason is that he really does love it—kibitzing with customers from behind the counter, looking up during a rush and seeing happy customers chowing down.

Payne’s former business partner, Byron Kouris, the restaurant’s namesake, died in 2012 at age 76.

Among Kouris’ many business lessons, Payne recalls this: “If you’ve got a product the public wants, don’t try to change it.”

Byron’s opened at 1017 W. Irving Park Road in 1975.

I’ll leave it to the food critics to tell you who serves the best hot dogs in town, but Byron’s solid, basic fare has earned it a legion of loyal customers who don’t mind sitting outside on a picnic table to wolf down their lunch or dinner. The Irving Park location has no indoor seating.

Loyal customers have always made sure Byron’s got its share of favorable publicity.

Michael Payne, owner of Byron’s Hot Dogs, stands outside his well-known Irving Park Road food stand. Photo by Mark Brown

Back in 2010, Sen. Dick Durbin’s office helped arrange for Payne to serve hot dogs on the White House lawn for the annual Congressional picnic, a few of which made their way inside to the Obama family.

Before the fire, a column by my colleague Lynn Sweet chronicling that event hung in the window. Payne assured me he’s having it re-framed.

As far as burning to the ground, Payne said that might have been a real possibility if not for an early morning passerby who spotted the smoke and called 9-1-1.

Payne admits he cynically thought at first that the passerby might have started the fire, but Chicago Fire Department and private insurance investigators both determined it was caused by the combustion of grease and chemicals in rags that had fallen behind the grill.

Now, Payne would like to thank the stranger if he were to come forward. So would I.

If Payne would spring for his hot dog and fries, I could probably pop for the drink.



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