The Palace Cafe is closing its doors indefinitely on Thursday at 2 p.m., according to business owner Leslie Meredith. A Monday-morning Facebook post announcing the closure sparked dismayed responses from the landmark diner’s patrons.
Larry Houck, who owns the cafe’s equipment and its portion of the Howell Street building, said the business is closing and that an interested buyer is in the process of taking out a loan to purchase the building and equipment. If the loan goes through, the buyer may open a business much like the current cafe in the coming weeks.
Meredith, who bought the business in 2011 after managing it for three years, said health problems and family hardships have made it difficult for her to keep running the restaurant. And while she’s kept prices the same for five years, wages and food costs have gone up, she said.
“It’s time for me to pass it on to someone who really has the energy for it,” Meredith said.
The Palace suffered a rocky year, losing staff and cutting out a weekend-night shift that was popular for college students last spring, Meredith said. The cafe currently has seven employees, she said.
For Hillsdale residents, the cafe’s closure is the loss of a landmark. According to the Hillsdale County Historical Society website, the building that houses The Palace was constructed in 1863. For a time, it was the Palace of Sweets — advertising homemade ice cream and candies in 1917 and “the best toasted sandwiches” in the 1930s — and then the Palace Cafe, with a brief interlude as The Whistle Stop during the early 2000s.
Crystal Elliott, who’s lived in Hillsdale her whole life, said she used to ride her bicycle to meet her mother for lunch at the Palace as a kid some 45 years ago. It was also a hangout for school kids on lunch break, back before meals were confined to the cafeteria.
“The Palace has never changed. If you walked in there in the late ’60s and early ’70s, it’s pretty much identical,” Elliott said. She added that she hopes the restaurant doesn’t change if new owners take over.
“I’d hate to see new booths come in; I’d hate to see anything new come in. It would be heartbreaking to see that happen,” she said. “The booths are really uncomfortable but worth the sit.”
Known for prices as low as its pancakes are large, the Palace has also been a staple for Hillsdale College students for years. It was a consistent favorite for The Collegian’s “Best of Hillsdale” surveys, winning “Best Brunch” in 2018, “Best Breakfast” in 2017, and “Best Diner” in 2016.
In 1985, a Collegian article touted the same low prices and small-town vibe the cafe has today.
“The food is good, the prices are unbeatable, and you will be in possession of all the hot weekend gossip,” the article said, noting also that groups “fight for the prestige of sitting at the elevated window booth at the top of the restaurant.”
Over the past few years, Meredith would often serve the Hillsdale College football team breakfast — bringing them in shifts to the tiny restaurant — on home-game days with a late kickoff, said Head Football Coach Keith Otterbein.
“I think the football players really appreciate it,” Otterbein said. “It gets them up, gets them something to eat early.”
Senior Carrie Olson said she once brought a group of high school girls she mentors to The Palace for dinner. When she went up to pay, one of the employees had paid for them.
“It made the girls feel loved and really connected to the community — made it just a really special time,” Olson said, adding that the diner feels like “an intersection of the community and the college.”
The classic diner days may not be over. Both Houck and Meredith said they think the current potential buyer might keep it much the same.
Though she’s ready to move on, Meredith said she’s pleased with the time she’s had running the business.
“I have done a lot of good for a lot of employees,” she said. “I love The Palace. I’ll miss the customers and helping people. That’s my true passion.”
Derek Haddix, who’s cooked and served at The Palace for two years, said he’ll miss Meredith’s management.
“I”m very sad, as far as not being able to work for Leslie anymore,” Haddix said. “She’s got absolutely the biggest heart and soul of anyone I’ve ever met in my life. She puts her personal issues to the side to help anyone in need at any point in time.”
But if it reopens as a restaurant, he said he hopes to stick around. His favorite part? “The people.”
“I would absolutely love to stay here. I have a customer base that’s absolutely amazing,” he said. “People come in and ask for me. That’s a good feeling, and all that work’s paid off.”