CHICAGO – The challenges facing Chicago’s Greektown and other ethnic enclaves in the city were featured in the Chicago Tribune as family-owned businesses were hard-hit not only by the COVID-19 pandemic but also by the rising rents and changing tastes in the neighborhoods.
The Diana Restaurant was once a fixture with owner Peter Kogeones, the “unofficial mayor of Greektown,” who would “greet people with shots of ouzo or Metaxa as they waited for a table,” the Tribune reported, adding that “the raucous ‘opa!’ environment of the ’70s and ’80s calmed after Diana’s closed, but other restaurants and bars opened and made Greektown a big dining and nightlife draw in the 1990s and early 2000s.”
In the past decade, however, many of those Greek family-owned businesses closed, “especially those without a next generation willing to take over the business – [that] struggle to justify paying high rents or reject lucrative offers for their properties,” the Tribune reported.
Among the businesses that have closed, Costa’s Greek Dining and Bar was housed in a building that succumbed to a fire in 2010 and the property “was replaced by The Van Buren, one of several apartment buildings that have added hundreds of units to Greektown in recent years,” the Tribune reported.
“The Parthenon restaurant, where the iconic flaming saganaki dish was said to be invented, closed in 2016 after 48 years in business,” the Tribune reported, adding that “the Ambassador Public House, a sports bar serving pub grub, has since taken over the space.”
Pegasus Restaurant and Taverna closed in 2017 after 27 years and “Roditys ended a 45-year run in 2018,” the Tribune reported.
Santorini is a staple for 31 years and counting on the corner of Halsted and Adams Streets, but the Tribune reported that “the property’s owners have talked with multiple residential developers interested in buying the site, according to people familiar with the discussions,” while “Santorini owner Jim Kontos could not be reached for comment.”
“Losing another staple would make it really hard to keep on with this Greektown motto because there would be very little to stand on,” said Dalila Youkhana, manager at Athena Restaurant, which has occupied the former Diana’s site since 1997, the Tribune reported.
While the Greek community has spread out from the enclave in recent years, Greektown still helps connect many to their Greek heritage.
“The biggest craving anyone can have is the sense of a belonging to a community,” said George Reveliotis, co-owner of the Greek cafe Artopolis, which opened on Halsted in 2000, the Tribune reported, “The more dis-attached we get from the immigrants that came here, the more we need certain reminders, and we are guided by our taste, our sense of smell.”
Helen Paspalas, “third-generation owner of Athenian Candle, founded 100 years ago, remembers how her grandmother ‘smelled like the store, the incenses and the beeswaxes,’” the Tribune reported, adding that “Paspalas spent her childhood visiting not only the Greek restaurants but also the Greek grocery store, bakery, music store, and travel agency. The sound of bouzouki, a Greek mandolin, spilled from the nightclubs.”
“That was a wonderful era,” she told the Tribune, “and now it’s just lost.”
Paspalas’ family owns the building which houses the store, and they “get queries from developers,” the Tribune reported.
“We take it day by day,” she told the Tribune, adding that as Athenian Candle celebrates its centennial, making candles for churches, “she feels she is a steward of its legacy.”
“We plan to make it to 101, to 102,” Paspalas told the Tribune.
“People I don’t think are interested anymore in lighting the saganaki and saying ‘opa,’” Yianni Theoharris, who opened the restaurant 9 Muses on Halsted Street in 1989 and the brunch spot Meli in 2006, told the Tribune, adding that new businesses moving in will help the neighborhood.
“That’s the creation of a piazza that the Italians say or an agora as the Greeks say, where everyone is around,” Theoharris told the Tribune.
“Reveliotis and a partner bought Artopolis last year, with plans to remodel and make the menu more contemporary,” the Tribune reported, noting that Reveliotis said that “a failure to keep up with modern Greek cuisine is one reason the neighborhood has fallen out of favor.”
“Athena has done interior renovations and freshened ingredients to battle perceptions among young people that Greektown is ‘old,’ said Youkhana, whose Assyrian family bought Athena five years ago,” the Tribune reported, adding that “it was a delicate balancing act so as not to alienate customers by changing too much.”
Greek Islands, in the neighborhood for 50 years with the same ownership, “was seeing increasing sales before the pandemic,” manager Angelo Petratos told the Tribune, noting that “though it has received many offers to sell its building over the past six years, it plans to anchor the north end of the corridor ‘for many years to come.’”
While new businesses coming in may not be Greek, the Greek presence is still evident as “festivals, a street art program, and the National Hellenic Museum, which opened on Halsted in 2011, are introducing more people to Greek culture,” Tessie Koumi, co-owner of the sports bar Spectrum, told the Tribune.
Spectrum, on Halsted since 1988, “added rock and blues bands on weekends to appeal to a larger crowd,” Koumi said, the Tribune reported, noting that “during non-pandemic times, it has monthly Greek nights, complete with traditional plate smashing.”
While the plate smashing may be on hold for now, lower rents may also be ahead for Chicago’s ethnic enclaves like Greektown and Little Italy with their unmatched character as the economy recovers, the Tribune reported.