Longtime North Shore restaurateur Sarkis Tashjian, whose greetings were as big as his mustache, died Sunday at Evanston Hospital from heart trouble, according to his family. He was 86.
In 1965, Mr. Tashjian opened Sarkis Cafe, a diner that has fed generations of customers near the crossroads of Gross Point Road, Crawford Avenue and Central Street in Evanston.
Harold Ramis was a patron. President Jimmy Carter stopped in. So did actors George Wendt and Charlotte Ross of “Arrow” and “Days of Our Lives.”
On the North Shore, where the pressure to succeed in school can be unrelenting, kids piled in to Sarkis Cafe for budget-priced, tasty “greasy-spoon” food with a side of unconditional acceptance.
Mr. Tashjian greeted them with a hug, a kiss on the cheek and shouts of “My friend!” and “I love you, buddy.”
When they got up to leave, he asked, “Your stomach is happy?”
Longtime customer Todd Safran said, “He treated everybody who came through that door like the president of the United States.”
“He embraced everything and everyone,” said Marla Cramin, current owner of Sarkis Cafe, who kept his menu and recipes after buying the place in 2000.
We are saddened to learn of the passing of the legendary Sarkis. He had a larger than life persona and left behind a lasting legacy for so many of us. Please share your favorite Sarkis memory in the comments below for everyone to enjoy. RIP Sarkis Tashjian https://t.co/Qc77RKwZBW— Sarkis Cafe (@CafeSarkis) June 26, 2018
In an interview in 1987 with the Chicago Sun-Times, Mr. Tashjian described his philosophy this way: “You have to get up every day and say, ‘I’m beautiful.’ It’s all in your blood how you feel.’ Lots of beautiful people, they [are] ugly.”
Pointing to his heart, he said, “You have to use here to feel beautiful.”
High school and college students came from all over to fill up on his Disaster Sandwich, Loretta Sandwich or Animal Sandwich, the “World’s Best Omelette,” house-made Armenian sausage, cheesy hashbrowns and bottomless cups of coffee.
“It was like a home away from home,” said Safran, 38, owner of a scrap-metal business who used to drive from Highland Park High School at least twice a week to eat at Sarkis Cafe with his friends. “It was a small little place that carried big, big memories. I had my 17th birthday there. He was literally our childhood.”
Mr. Tashjian was born in Jerusalem to Shoukry and Bayzar Tashjian, survivors of the Armenian genocide, according to his daughter Tina. Young Sarkis trained as a dentist and was adept at bridgework, crowns and fillings, she said.
“People still have my dad’s work in their mouth,” she said.
Around 1958, he arrived in the United States. In Chicago, he fell in love with his future wife Sunny, who used to sing at the Armenian Congregational Church on Sheridan Road. He had a carpet-cleaning business before opening the grill.
When Mr. Tashjian bought the diner, “He didn’t even know how to fry an egg,” his daughter said. “My mom used to say, ‘Your dad has a lot of guts.’ ”
In 1997, the Zagat restaurant guide included Sarkis Cafe in its list of “Top 10 Bangs for the Buck.”
A couple of years later, the place was closed for about six months because of code violations. Mr. Tashjian said he’d been treated unfairly and vowed not to reopen. But customers begged him to reconsider. Some wrote letters, including Chris Kennedy, who became president of the Merchandise Mart and a Democratic candidate for governor.
Kennedy, a fan of the Disaster Sandwich, said at the time he felt compelled to get involved: “My wife’s parents have been going there for years.”
Often, students would drop by at the end of the year to ask Mr. Tashjian to sign their yearbooks.
His wife, who died in 2015, would tell him: “Even though you didn’t graduate high school, you’re still in a lot of yearbooks.”
In addition to his daughter Tina, he is survived by another daughter, Elizabeth, and two grandchildren.
Visitation will be from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday at Donnellan Funeral Home in Skokie, with the funeral at 10 a.m. Saturday at St. James Armenian Church in Evanston and burial at Memorial Park Cemetery in Skokie.