Mihalopoulos: Parthenon’s closing a sad end to a joyous odyssey
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Parthenon owner Christos Liakouras said Thursday he had no choice but to close his well-known Greektown restaurant after 48 years of serving gyros, saganaki, roast lamb and shots of crystal-clear ouzo.
“The reality is business wasn’t as good as it used to be,” Liakouras, 80, told me in Greek. “The last couple years, our expenses were greater than what we were making. Nothing could be done.
“I know I’ve disappointed a million people. I’m disappointed, too. But I was working and putting money in. We had business — just not enough business to make a profit.”
The restaurant at 314 S. Halsted St. served its last customers on Monday and didn’t open for business Tuesday. After city health inspectors caused the Parthenon to shut its doors temporarily earlier this year, a sign in the window explained that it was closed for good this time.
Liakouras said the restaurant’s end affected 45 workers who prepared and served 140 Parthenon menu items.
Born in Megalopolis, in Greece’s Arcadia province, Liakouras moved to the United States and settled in Detroit with his brother and father in 1955, when he was 18. After serving in the U.S. military, he moved to Chicago and worked as a waiter at a couple places, including the old Diana Restaurant in Greektown.
In 1968, Liakouras opened the Parthenon. There, he innovated the now-common practice of lighting Greek cheese on fire using brandy while waiters yell “Ooooopa!”
“At that time, nobody was doing that anywhere,” not even in Greece, he said.
The restaurant was a mainstay of the bustling Greek restaurant row along Halsted for decades.
“We are very sad we couldn’t continue,” Liakouras said. “It was a big success, but time changes everything, and everything has an end.”
Recuperating from hip-replacement surgery last week, Liakouras said he was gratified by all the customers who contacted him after the Parthenon’s closing.
He said his working days are over but his wife will work in a sports bar that “a Greek guy and an Irish guy” are set to open soon in the building next door, which his wife owns.
Like the fire that destroyed several Greektown businesses in 2010, the Parthenon’s demise sparked talk of how the neighborhood is becoming less Greek.
In truth, the current incarnation of Greektown hasn’t been a Greek neighborhood at all for a long time, at least not in the sense that many Greeks live there.
The construction of the Eisenhower Expressway and the University of Illinois’ Chicago campus uprooted what had been the largest Greek immigrant community in the country.
Since then, Greektown has been a gathering place for Greeks who now live all across the Chicago area and an attraction for non-Greeks who crave the country’s cuisine. Liakouras estimated that 80 percent of the Parthenon’s customers were non-Greeks.
Maintaining the neighborhood’s Greek identity depends on adjusting to changes in the city around it, said John Theoharis, a co-owner of Greektown’s 9 Muses Bar & Grill and Meli Café & Juice Bar.
“There are Greek businesses in Greektown, but a lot of people don’t change with the times,” said Theoharis, who’s president of the Greektown Chamber of Commerce. “The Greek cuisine is a great cuisine but you have to take a chance and be more creative, be more innovative. Greek cuisine is more than just gyros and saganaki.”
Regardless, lots of gyros and saganaki were consumed at the Parthenon. What will open in its place was unclear Thursday.
Entities created by a Greek-American businessman recently bought the building where the Parthenon operated. He could not be reached for comment.