The Parthenon is gone, but flaming saganaki lives on.
The Parthenon, the oldest restaurant in Chicago’s Greektown, closed Tuesday, having failed a series of public health inspections. It was a sad day, but perhaps inevitable. The restaurant, 48 years old, had been looking tired and stale for some time.
But we can’t let the Parthenon go without a few words of appreciation. The restaurant was an original anchor of Greektown, to which generations of Chicagoans and tourists have flocked for excellent Greek food. And it gave the world flaming saganaki, a cheesy ritual that branded all of Greektown — all four blocks along Halsted Street — as a good place for a party.
Before the Parthenon opened, there was only flameless saganaki — Greek cheese pan-fried in a batter of flour and egg. But one afternoon in 1968, just three of four days after the restaurant opened, a group of four women came in for lunch. When Chris Liakouras, the restaurant’s owner, offered them a sample of saganaki, one of the women looked down at it and said, “Why don’t you put a little brandy on that and flame it?”
Liakouras — at least as he tells the story — immediately understood. His eyes grew wide. He dashed behind the bar, grabbed a bottle of Greek brandy, doused the hot cheese with about half a shot and lit it with his cigarette lighter. And — this is key — he added the perfect punctuation: “Opa!” Which is sort of Greek for “Cheers!” or “Yippee!”
Almost immediately, every other Greek restaurant on the strip had to offer flaming saganaki, too, just to compete.
A widespread misconception is that Greektown is a remnant of Chicago’s original Greek neighborhood. In fact, the heart of the community, called the Delta, was located about a half mile further south on Halsted. It was paved over by the Eisenhower Expressway and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Today’s Greektown was established, from the beginning, as a dining destination — a place to go to eat well and eat happy.
The Parthenon is gone, but may Greektown live on. Opa!
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