10 years after the closure of a family business in the center north, a son opens a restaurant in the same place

CENTRE NORTH — The son of former North Center grease spoon owners is returning to the neighborhood to open a restaurant in the same location where his family ran their business for 26 years.

Irene’s Finer Diner will open next month at 2012 W. Irving Park Road. Owner Petros Papatheofanis named the restaurant after his mother.

Papatheofanis’ father opened Alps East at the same address in 1986 and ran it until his death in 2000, Papatheofanis said. His mother and other relatives continued to run the business until they closed it in 2012, Papatheofanis said.

The restaurant has changed hands a few times over the past 10 years, becoming Danny’s Egghead Diner, which closed in 2018. Most recently, it was Northside Kitchen, which opened in 2019 and closed in February 2020.

After a few attempts to secure the space, Papatheofanis is set to open Irene’s next month.

“Fast forward 10 years and here we are trying to reopen the restaurant my family first opened in 1986,” Papatheofanis said. “Basically what we’re doing is opening a restaurant with better, more thoughtful ingredients, while maintaining that restaurant feel.

“Being able to offer something that traditionally feels like that greasy spoon experience where you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s very unhealthy, but it feeds the soul.’ We say you can still feed someone’s soul, but with better ingredients that are a little better for you.

Papatheofanis had long had his eye on running a family business, if not his parents’ longtime restaurant.

Papatheofanis’ father worked for the owners of Original Alps Pancake House, 3637 W. Irving Park Road, and befriended them before opening his own restaurant, Papatheofanis said.

Papatheofanis grew up working alongside his father and remembers stealing bacon from the grill as a child and going to help out at Alps East during his college summers, he said.

Papatheofanis studied hotel administration at Northern Illinois University in an effort to help his family run the restaurant, but they closed the business before he graduated, he said.

“I wanted to help my mother and try to make a difference, but I graduated too late, so I started working in business,” Papatheofanis said.

While working at Kimpton Hotels and other restaurants in River North, Papatheofanis kept tabs on availability at the Irving Park Road spot in hopes of one day returning to open a restaurant, he said. .

When Papatheofanis heard of Danny’s Egghead Diner closing, he contacted building owner Tony “Doc” Athans to try to work out a deal.

The two have known each other for years. Athans, a dentist, took over the property from his own father – who leased the space for Alps East from Papatheofanis’ father.

Athans was not immediately available for comment.

“My dad signed the original lease with his dad in 1986,” Papatheofanis said. “The moment I heard about it, I was like, ‘Hey, Doc, is space open? But by then he had already made arrangements with another owner.

Papatheofanis continued to monitor the property and contacted Athans again after Northside Kitchen closed, he said.

“We had a meeting in March 2020 where we figured out the arrangements and he agreed that I would take over the space,” Papatheofanis said. “We shook hands and thought we’d give him a couple weeks to see how this COVID thing plays out. The rest is history, and here we are almost two years later trying to get things done.

Papatheofanis brought Cristian Mendoza and Norah Zamler as co-owners to Irene. The trio worked together at Sable Kitchen & Bar and The Press Room.

Credit: Alex V. Hernandez/Block Club Chicago
Petros Papatheofanis (left) and Cristian Mendoza, co-owners of Irene’s Finer Diner, stand outside the restaurant on August 29, 2022.

Papatheofanis was a stage manager at Sable when he met Mendoza, who was working as a waiter. Zamler was most recently the executive chef of The Press Room.

“It was really very organic. He kept talking about reopening it over the years, and we just happened to have the opportunity to do that,” Mendoza said.

The new owners have put a fresh coat of paint on the restaurant and installed new equipment over the past few weeks, Papatheofanis said.

“We want to be as focused as possible on this project because of its sentimental value,” Papatheofanis said. “We also understand how important first impressions are. We really try to work hard to make sure everything is connected before we open our doors.

The menu is still being finalized, but it will include staple dishes made with ingredients sourced from local farms and vendors, Papatheofanis said.

For example, eggs will come from Slagel Family Farm and produce will come from Nichols Farm & Orchard, Papatheofanis said.

Also, instead of typical soft drinks, the restaurant will offer Jones Soda, a craft drink made from pure cane sugar, he said.

“I think it’s cool to have an omelette where you know where the pork and the vegetables come from,” Papatheofanis said. “It’s important to me because I think people who are passionate about restaurants are passionate about where the food comes from.”

Papatheofanis said he was thrilled to continue his family’s legacy and have his children work alongside him in the family business as he once did, he said.

“The Greeks name their children after their parents. My firstborn is called Dimitri after my father. I thought I had already paid tribute to her, so now it’s my turn to pay tribute to my mother Irene with the restaurant,” he said. “It’s always been a family thing for me.”

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