The Parthenon may never have been born if it weren’t for some delinquent car payments. In the ’50s, fresh from serving in the army during the Korean War, The Parthenon’s owner Chris Liakouras was living in Detroit. His buddy Petros was three months behind on payments for his car, so the pair fled to Chicago so Petros could avoid collection agents.
Liakouras got a job chrome-plating pistons at International Harvester, but he didn’t see an opportunity to move up in the company, so he started working as a server at the now-defunct Mandis Chicken King in Portage Park. His brother Bill moved to Chicago and joined him as a server a year later. Liakouras didn’t use trays to serve food; he stacked them–as many as 20–in the crook of his arm.
His skill was also his doom. One night, he was carrying 12 bowls of soup when he was bumped by a busboy. The tower of soup came crashing down, burning his arm. The manager yelled at Liakouras, so he quit.
He got a job at Diana Grocery and Restaurant on Halsted Street in 1961, and a few years later, another restaurant called Hellas opened up nearby. The restaurant wasn’t doing very well, and one afternoon in 1968, Liakouras, who’d saved money from his job at Diana, stopped by Hellas, drank a few bottles of retsina with the owner and ended up buying the place for $38,500. He opened The Parthenon there on July 5, 1968.
They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but from 1968 until 1971, the Liakouras brothers gave out free samples of their gyros to diners because no one knew what they were. The Parthenon gyros ($8.75 for a small, $12.95 for a large) were made from 80 percent beef and 20 percent lamb. The cones were built with layers of spiced meat and left to cure in the refrigerator for a few days. They were originally fired on an electric spit, but it often shorted out and heated unevenly, so Liakouras collaborated with an ironworker to construct a gas rotisserie.
Over the next 40 years, an industry of mass-produced, pre-cooked frozen gyro cone producers sprang up. Many of them make 100 percent beef cones that have no lamb at all. This is the gyro you probably know—those thin, mealy strips you get at the corner shack.
Today, The Parthenon still makes its gyros from scratch. What you get here are caramelized pieces of beef and lamb; they’re thick, often with a touch of pinkness and served on a bed of onion tossed with parsley. The cucumber-studded tzatziki made from housemade yogurt is incredibly creamy and tangy, and the pita is pillowy, warm and blistered.
Like the gyros, Liakouras is still kickin’ around in The Parthenon’s 46th year. Though his daughter and business partner Yanna handles most of the day-to-day business, you can always find him sitting at the bar reading a paper, talking to customers and enjoying his abiding success.
Worth a trip: Gyros at The Parthenon
314 S. Halsted St. 312-726-2407
This article first appeared in Redeye Chicago in a different form.