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Greek Diners in America’s Heartland

The most frequent question I have been getting since I began researching Greek-owned diner restaurants in America is whether they have a future. It is prompted by the knowledge that their numbers are declining due to competition from food chain restaurants, rising real estate prices and labor costs, as well as the effects of the COVID epidemic. During a recent visit to Chicago I was able to witness firsthand how diner owners are taking steps to ensure their survival in the future.

Chicago may not the obvious place to explore the Greek-owned diners phenomenon. Diners are to be found mostly in America’s Northeast, not its Midwestern heartland. Chicago was known for its large number of Greek-owned restaurants for most of the twentieth century. It has been the home of two major gyro and Greek food companies, Grecian Delight and Kronos, which have recently merged. But Chicago is not known for its diners although I discovered Greek owned ‘Restaurants’ or ‘Grill Houses’ with diner-like interiors, long counters, stools, and booths serving breakfast all-day which makes them qualify as diners.

My week-long visit to the city and the few conversations I had hardly makes me an expert of the future of Chicago’s diners, but I managed to get some sense of what lies ahead. I learned of three overall strategies of survival. The first is the evolution of the diner into something more specialized, as is the case of the Greek-owned Meli Café and Yolk breakfast and lunch chains. The second is to create a diner in a gourmet food mode, using local and organic products, as is the case of Irene’s Finer Diner, co-owned by Petros Papatheofanis and Christian Mendoza. It is only a year-old but judging from the breakfast I enjoyed there, it is on its way to becoming a success story.

The other survival strategy for the Greek-owned diners in Chicago is to keep doing what they are doing well and adapt to the changing tastes of their customers as their neighborhoods change. One example is the Golden Apple Grill and Breakfast House, a diner open 24-hours on the city’s North Side. I decided to visit without a common friend’s recommendation or even an appointment, something I dread doing because owners are frequently too busy or not interested in being interviewed by someone they do not know. Standing behind the register was Tom (Thanasis) Dalakouras, one of the two co-owners of the Golden Apple, along with Nick Alex. They purchased the diner in 1997 and it has being going strong since. Tom proved a gracious host who shared a lot of experiences while also tending the register, greeting arriving customers, the regulars, by their name, and wishing well those on their way out. His story is one of persistent hard work, constant focus on the needs of the customers, adapting to the gentrification of its neighborhood and providing high quality food thanks to the skills of Felix, his longtime chef. A sure recipe for survival.

If there is one person on whom the future Greek-owned diners in Chicago will depend on, he is George Liakopoulos, the man from whom Tom and his partner purchased the Golden Apple. We met in his company’s conference room. As a child, Liakopoulos bussed tables at his father Odysseas’ LaSalle Cafeteria. Eventually he went on to study business administration at Loyola University. But unlike many who would have pursued a career elsewhere, George went back to work with his father. He put his work experience and his business degree, not to mention his business savvy, to good use. He owns several restaurants, including Griddle 24, Hollywood Grill, and the White Palace Grill which are diners he has tailored in style and offerings to appeal to their neighborhoods.

The White Palace Grill almost closed down a few years ago when a huge shopping mall was built on its block threatening its very existence. Liakopoulos fought back – he turned down lucrative offers and successfully defended his property from eminent domain takeovers. A Chicago food blog describes the White Palace Grill currently as:

“a postage sized shrine to the mom & pop establishment amid the big-box stores and chains that have completely engulfed the rest of the block where the restaurant resides.” It adds Liakopoulos “has managed to hold on and continues to serve the hungry despite all odds.” The diner’s survival was helped when Liakopoulos acquired an important ally, the then-mayor, Richard M. Daley. Hanging on the wall of the White Palace is a framed letter from the mayor which reads: “Just a note to commend your efforts to maintain and expand the White Palace Grill. A Chicago institution for over 60 years, your restaurant continues to offer the people of our city a great place to meet, dine, and interact.”

Clearly with owners like these showing such a deep commitment to the concept of the diner, we can look forward to its future.

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