by Amy Neiman
Growing up in downtown Chicago, I was surrounded by restaurants and markets of countless variety. From my house, we had the tastes of the world in walking distance. While my mom cooked dinner most nights, we also ordered takeout more than the average family. We had a handful of favorites; places that knew us by name and where menus were unnecessary because, after time, they just knew what the Neimans ordered. Two blocks from my home (or one and a half if you cut through the alley), was one such Greek restaurant. Established in 1975, The Athenian Room was one of those secret neighborhood gems appreciated only by those in the immediate locale. With the famously popular Greek Town just two miles south, there was no shortage of fabulous and authentic Greek cuisine in the city. But this particular family-run joint, serving traditional Athenian cuisine, was unique to our particular neighborhood. Its white stone façade imparted a rustic old world charm that contrasted quite dramatically with the more contemporary buildings of most nearby eateries. If not for the dancing, flame-fueled spit warming the signature gyros meat just beyond the darkened front windows, you’d barely be able make out the brick walled interior, stained wood tables and red cushioned chairs inviting you to come share a meal.
In my family, it was a given that Sunday nights were “Athenian Nights.” On these evenings, there were two main tasks: someone was delegated the role of placing the order over the phone, and another the job of walking to pick it up. The phrase “Who’s going to get the Athenian?” was a predictable inquiry in our Sunday evening repertoire. In the dead of Chicago winter, walking two blocks after sunset can be painful. Whoever braved the cold was viewed as taking one for the team.
Despite our consistent patronage to the restaurant, I never developed a love for the food growing up. I didn’t enjoy the taste of meat, which was indeed their specialty. In fact, as an insult I would often tell my brother that he “smelled like the Athenian Room” when he would return from being out on a humid, sweaty summer day. Nonetheless, each member of my family was committed to their “usual.” Mom savored the two-inch thick feta burger on a red sauce stained sesame seed bun, for dad it was the oregano-crusted Greek chicken dripping in olive oil and lemon, and for my brother, always the gyros shaved straight from the spit and into a freshly warmed pita, saturated with extra red sauce and tzatziki. Then, there were, of course, always two additional side orders of Greek fries specially crisped to a deep golden brown. I must admit that I did enjoy the fries, but grease laden starch didn’t seem a substantial meal for a growing girl. On any other occasion, this sentiment would have been shared by my parents. On Athenian Nights, however, fries were a fine substitute for a complete meal, the argument strengthened by my brother’s notion that that red sauce was a vegetable.
After 18 years in the same brownstone home on Fremont Street, I left my neighborhood and Chicago to study Anthropology in Boulder, Colorado. This transition quickly made clear how deeply my Chicago roots had been sown. The diversity of my home town did not exist in Boulder where I felt young, white, pseudo-hippies dined exclusively on hummus, vegan burritos, tofu stir fry and barbequed tempeh. While I myself was trying to be vegan at the time, I quickly grew tired of the aroma carried by the “trust-a-farians” whose dirty dreadlocks chronically emitted scents of garlic and over-priced craft beer. I missed all the unique tastes and aromas of my city. The smell of Chicago classics like stale Old Style beer and boiled hot dogs squished between a steamed S.Rosen poppy seed bun felt so far away. Boulder seemed void of both authenticity and culture.
That year, I returned to Chicago to celebrate Christmas. On my second night back, I convinced my dad to walk with me to The Athenian just a few blocks away. It was particularly cold; we cut through the alley. We walked with our hands stuffed deep in our pockets, keeping our breath shallow to lock the cold out of our lungs and hungry bellies. And then, my nose was filled with smells overwhelmingly familiar. Almost immediately, I could decompose the symphony of aromas. Greek fries, freshly lit saganaki, warmed pita bread, and that gyros releasing its juices while roasting over that pit of flames. I stopped in my tracks. I lifted my hunched head, putting my nose high in the air to take a big, freezing cold whiff of the moment. Beginning to cry from what would have appeared to be out of the blue to any outsider, my dad stared at me with eyes that scolded, “Amy, It’s way too cold for an Amy meltdown.” In that precise second, the true significance of the Athenian Room to my life experience was revealed. Much more than Sunday nights, it was my daily walks to school, it was my neighbors, it was my brother, it was my family and it was “taking one for the team” on the coldest of Chicago nights.
Currently living in Los Angeles Amy Kingson Neiman is working to incorporate her past experiences as a farm-to-table educator with her interests in the larger food world.