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From The Kids Table: There’s No Place Like Home
A writer reflects on the beloved neighborhood joint that always stays the same while the world outside changes
Welcome to From The Kids Table, our personal essay series in which writers share childhood memories about dining out. For our latest installment, New York City-based writer Nina Friend reflects on her favorite no-frills Chicago spot, and how a beloved restaurant can anchor you in this always changing world. We hope you enjoy, and would love to hear your feedback in the comments below.
The smell hits you right when you open the door: musty, earthy, an unmistakable combination of olive oil and beer. One step inside of Athenian Room—one whiff of the gyros twirling on a spit—and your saliva starts to bubble around your tongue. The air, seasoned with oregano and the tang of red wine vinegar, makes your face pucker up but in a good way, like you’ve licked a spoonful of lemon sorbet. If you’re from Chicago, and you, like me, are a regular at this neighborhood spot, you know what I’m talking about.
Athenian Room, referred to simply as “Athenian” by those who love it, has anchored the stretch between Webster and Halsted in Chicago’s Lincoln Park since 1972. It’s the go-to Greek place that’s perfect for a last-minute lunch or a no-frills dinner, a spot that’s served the same food for what feels like forever, and is beloved by locals and celebrities alike. Alex Polakis, who locals know as the man by the kitchen with the collared shirt and white beard, opened the restaurant when he was 24. There were just three tables back then, and he paid $45 a month in rent.
There’s a lot more space now, plus outdoor seating on the sidewalk. You can also order food inside of Glascott’s, the bar next door, or get drinks and bring them to your table, since Athenian doesn’t serve alcohol. No matter where you sit, chances are high that you’ll run into someone you know. Sometimes it feels like Athenian Room is the hottest club in Chicago. And yet, even if there’s a line of people waiting to put their name down, you won’t wait longer than 15 minutes for a table, and you can be out of there in less than an hour.
My dad has been going to Athenian Room since 1985. He introduced it to my mom, and they went there the night before my brother Jack was born, when they were still deciding what to call him. Anna Panagoulias, who ran the register for my entire life, always told that story—of how my parents ate at Athenian when they were deciding Jack’s name—whenever we came in for dinner. Anna, with her blunt bangs, thick round glasses, and raspy voice, remembered everything. For a long time, she was synonymous with Athenian itself.
For me, Athenian Room used to mean independence. It was the place we went in high school to feel like we were adults. And even though the space itself felt familiar, that newfound exploration of freedom—and the ability to be out at a restaurant without parents—felt a little daring. Once I left for college, Athenian Room became the slice of home I always craved. In my freshman year dorm room, I taped an Athenian Room placemat to the wall above my bed. It was the place I wanted to go when I came back to Chicago that first Thanksgiving, and it’s still the place I want to eat after a long time away from home.
But it’s not necessarily the vibes or even the food that you go to Athenian for; it’s the comfort. My childhood friend Blair Fischer, who moved away for college but now lives in Chicago, goes to Athenian once a week. “What I love the most is the sense of community,” she tells me. “You walk in as comfortable or dressed up as you want to be. You’re bound to see people you know or grew up with. It’s the definition of a neighborhood joint and is such a symbol of home.” Blair and I—along with most of the people I grew up with—know what it’s like to live away from Chicago and long for Athenian Room. That longing, I think, has a lot to do with the fact that Athenian Room stays the same while everything else changes.
There are three rules at Athenian Room: no reservations, cash only, and if you look at a menu, we know you’re not from around here. My order depends on my mood, but only wavers between two things: the chicken shish kebab salad, add feta, with wet fries, and the Kalamata chicken. Sometimes, if I’m feeling fancy, I’ll also get a grilled cheese pita (in which slices of American cheese are melted, open-face, on top of a pita), and I always ask for a side of red sauce. This viscous, brassy red condiment tempers the acid in the food with a sour sweetness that tastes like if ketchup had a baby with A1. For me, the red sauce makes the meal. I drench everything in it, from skewered onions to pieces of iceberg lettuce.
Blair and I—along with most of the people I grew up with—know what it’s like to live away from Chicago and long for Athenian Room. That longing, I think, has a lot to do with the fact that Athenian Room stays the same while everything else changes.
The Kalamata chicken, a half chicken served soaking in the same oregano-laden red wine vinegar juice that douses the wet fries, was famously Tina Fey’s favorite when she lived in Chicago. In fact, on an episode of David Letterman’s Netflix show “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction,” Fey talks about her years at the comedy club Second City, the best deep dish pizza (for her, a tie between Gino’s East and Lou Malnati’s, but in my opinion, Lou Malnati’s always wins), and why she loved a local Greek spot.
“There’s a place called the Athenian Room where I used to go all the time,” Fey says. “Little tiny place, and they roast these chickens with lemon and all this stuff and then they take the big roasted chicken and they put it on a plate of steak fries.” Here’s where Letterman utters a combination of a laugh and a gasp. “And all the lemony chicken fat sinks down into the fries.”
In the episode, Letterman films a scene in Chicago, at Athenian Room. Anna, the woman behind the register who always asked about my brother, sets plates of Kalamata chicken down in front of Letterman and Buddy Guy, the legendary blues guitarist. While they talk music and life, the two men eat their Kalamata chickens. Letterman pops a wet fry into his mouth and says, “Holy crap.”
This past March, the actress Carrie Coon was on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and she also professed her Athenian Room love. “You know the Athenian Room?” she asks. “My husband and I would go there for our anniversary and have the Kalamata chicken, for $12.95.” Coon’s husband, the actor and playwright Tracy Letts, has been quoted saying the same thing. “My wife and I, we go to the Athenian Room to eat the delicious Kalamata chicken,” he told the film publication /Film back in 2019.
The Kalamata chicken has gone up a bit in price—it’s $15.50 now—but it’s still the same flavorful, juicy, homey dish that I’ve been eating forever. No matter how much time I spend away from Chicago, I know that when I come back to Athenian Room, the chicken—and everything else—will be just the way I remembered.
Nina Friend is a New York-based writer who covers food, drink, restaurants, lifestyle, and sports. Find her on Instagram at @ninafriend.