The Ariston Cafe: Oldest Restaurant on Route 66

March 31, 2019

The Ariston Cafe, now located in Litchfield, Illinois, is credited as being the longest operating restaurant along the entire stretch of historic U.S. Route 66.  As such it is yet another among the uncounted host of Greek-owned restaurants that have and continue to play a significant role in the communities in which they are found. Unintentionally, this very same cafe, is also an example of what the future of other Greek-owned restaurants in North America are likely to one day experience.

In 1924, Pete Adam, a Greek immigrant, founded the Ariston Cafe in Carlinville, Illinois. The original cafe was located on Route 4, the predecessor of Historic Route 66. When the original Ariston Cafe opened in 1924, it was billed as ‘the most up-to-date restaurant between St. Louis and Chicago (St. Louis Dispatch July 9, 1998).”

Then, after 1930, a highway realignment moved U.S. Route 66 in Illinois further east. Adam relocated his cafe to Litchfield in 1929, moving to its current address at 413 North Old Route 66 in 1935.

Times were different then, “a chicken dinner cost 50 cents and chickens were kept in a back-porch coop (Des Moines Register April 29, 2001).”

“The Illinois segment of the Mother Road (e.g. Old Route 66) at this time was a major transportation corridor between Chicago, then the nation’s second largest city, and St. Louis…America’s seventh largest city. Even during the Depression, traffic on this well-paved road remained steady. In 1936, the State of Illinois reported that Route 66 was the heaviest traveled long-distance highway in the State (nps.gov). In 1997, when local Russell Soulsby visited the Ariston Cafe in Litchfield he recalled ‘we played here in 1934 when the place opened…recalling his days with a dance band called the Melodians. He played the alto saxophone. ‘We played right over in that corner. This place hasn’t changed very much (St. Louis Dispatch July 9, 1997).”

Unclear in the available accounts is whether Tom Cokinos was in partnership with Peter Adams before the move to Litchfield or afterwards. Whatever the case, Cokinos was a partner in the Ariston Cafe once it opened at the new location in Litchfield. Among the others involved with the cafe for years were James Paulos, who became the chief cook with an additional staff of nine individuals.

“Like many other businesses along Route 66, the Ariston Cafe originally had two gas pumps in front of the building. The combination food and gas stop helped to draw more customers and added to the business’s profit (National Register of Historic Places, 2006).”
Virtually from the day it opened the Ariston Cafe, aside from its daily trade, became home to countless wedding receptions, baptism meals, funeral dinners, informal parties between friends and family get-togethers. And to this day the cafe remains a place for families, as we hear in the following report: “Diners are treated to dark wood booths, tablecloth tables, a salad bar, a menu highlighted by prime rib, seafood, Tex-Mex fare and a tray of fresh, house-made desserts that are to die for. We started with crispy shrimp, chicken noodle soup, and chips and salsa. For entrees, we had halibut steak and broiled salmon steak with mashed potatoes, cole slaw and Spanish rice. Then they brought the dessert tray to our table. What to choose? Baklava or Italian cream cake or bread pudding or cheesecake or the Lemon Delight, lemon cream and whipped cream on a house-made crust, or house-made chocolate layer cake or whipped cream dessert with strawberry topping? Other popular options are catfish fillet, golden brown fried shrimp, pork tenderloin sandwich, prime rib of beef sandwich and tacos, enchiladas and burritos. Ariston Cafe is a popular destination. It even attracts visitors from St. Louis for prime rib on Friday and Saturday nights or Sunday Brunch with an omelet station, hand-carved roast beef, ham and seafood. You just can’t believe that a restaurant like this is located in a small town in southern Illinois (https://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g36270-d474346-r480385639-The_Ariston_Cafe-Litchfield_Illinois.html).

All in all, as reported by Tom Snyder, Founder & Director of the U.S. Route 66 Association, “The Ariston Cafe is more than an excellent place for lunch or dinner, it’s an institution.”

Such an enduring record of service was not achieved overnight but maintained day-by-day. So from 1929 to 1966, Peter Adams ran the daily operations of the Ariston Cafe to great and lasting effect. Unexpectedly in 1966, after 37 years at the Litchfield location, Peter Adams died. This was an especially bitter-sweet transition because Nick Adams, Peter’s son, and his newlywed wife Demi had just returned from their honeymoon that year.

Over the years, both Nick and Demi said it’s been the people they have enjoyed most. “There have just been some spectacular people, and so many of them have been in this week,” Demi said. “We also have wonderful, dedicated employees, and we couldn’t have done it without them.” Nick added that their employees have just become an extension of their family throughout his career, and he’s now hiring grandchildren of people that have worked for him at times. “We have been able to share so much with people,” Nick said.

We can see this attention to the past also in the fact that, “despite a few alterations, including the addition of a banquet room, the building still maintains a historic character from the Depression era of its construction. In other words, it doesn’t reflect any particular architectural style. When visiting the Ariston Cafe, you take a step back in time, to the 1940s and 1950s. Noteworthy is its Alamo-like parapet with glazed terra cotta coping and its finely crafted exterior brickwork. Two original metal and neon signs announcing the Ariston Cafe and advertising Budweiser beer adorn the front facade. The interior dining room still retains much of its 1930s decor, including a stunning Art Deco wall cabinet, chrome stools, original light fixtures in the booths and the 1935 acoustical tile ceiling (nps.gov).”

In 2004, Paul, eldest son of Demi and Nick, and his wife, Joy, joined the family business adding their energies, skills, and dedication to the traditional service expected of a family-owned and operated restaurant.

For more than 50 years, Nick and Demi Adam greeted not only diners from all over the world, but they also continued to serve their community as well as a host of travelers who have become more than friends over the years.

In 1992, The Ariston Cafe and the Adam family were inducted into the Route 66 Hall of Fame. Next on May 5, 2006, the Ariston Cafe was placed in the National Register of Historic Places by the State of Illinois and the National Park Service (Southern Illinoisan May 26, 2006). Then, in October 2014, the Ariston Cafe celebrated its 90 anniversary as a family-owned endeavor, the same month it was put up for sale, and in April 2015, the Ariston Cafe was voted the No. 1 restaurant on Route 66 by users of Route66News.com.

In July 2018, the Cafe was purchased by Litchfield restauranteurs Will and Michele Law and Marty and Kara Steffens. “This place is an institution,” said Kara Steffens, who bought the restaurant with her husband, Marty, and Will Law, who will oversee the day-to-day operations of the iconic establishment. The Steffens couple also own and operate Maverick Steaks & Spirits in Litchfield.

The Adam couple officially marked their last day at the Ariston on Saturday, June 30, although they greeted familiar customers throughout the restaurant all week long. Staff members had several special gifts for them before the final dinner rush on Saturday evening. “This is certainly a bittersweet time for us,” said Demi. “But we are excited, and we have no regrets.” And they have nothing but best wishes for the trio who will take over the family restaurant, who already have more than 30 years of experience in the restaurant business. “They have a passion for the restaurant business,” Nick said, “And if you’re going to succeed, you have to have that passion (Journal-News July 1, 2018).”

Between the 1880s and the Great Depression Greek immigrants held a commanding presence in the ice cream/confectionary business. To this day, a scattering of ice cream and candy stores are still operated by Greek families across the nation. Individual brands of candy and ice cream, first created by Greek immigrants, are now distributed across the planet. And so we must come to realize that the current stereotype of Greeks as owner/operators of all manner of fine and very often award-winning restaurants is at a pivotal moment. The day of the American stereotype of the Greek-owned restaurant is fading. Which leaves us with just one question, “which new areas of work and creativity will Greeks in North America now make their own?”

Steve Frangos, c. 2019
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