Irene's Finer Diner co-owners Cristian Mendoza (left) and Petros Papatheofanis sitting at the diner Aug. 29, 2022. Credit: Alex V. Hernandez/Block Club Chicago

NORTH CENTER — The son of the former owners of a North Center greasy spoon is returning to the neighborhood to open a diner in the same place 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 he died in 2000, Papatheofanis said. His mother and other relatives continued to run the business until they closed it in 2012, Papatheofanis said. 

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

After a couple of tries 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 diner with better and more thoughtful ingredients, but still having that diner kind of feel.

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

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

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Papatheofanis’s father worked for the owners of Original Alps Pancake House, 3637 W. Irving Park Road, and became friends with them before opening his own diner, Papatheofanis said.

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

Papatheofanis studied hospitality administration at Northern Illinois University with the intent of helping his family run the restaurant, but they closed the business before he graduated, he said. 

“I wanted to help my mom and try and turn things around, but I graduated too late, so I started working corporate,” Papatheofanis said. 

While working at Kimpton Hotels and other River North restaurants, Papatheofanis kept an eye on the Irving Park Road spot’s availability with the hope of one day returning to open a restaurant, he said. 

When Papatheofanis heard about Danny’s Egghead Diner closing, he reached out to the building’s landlord, Tony “Doc” Athans, to try to make a deal.

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

Athans was not immediately available for comment.

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

Papatheofanis continued to keep tabs on the property and reached out to Athans again after Northside Kitchen closed, he said.

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

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

Irene’s Finer Diner co-owners Petros Papatheofanis (left) and Cristian Mendoza and standing outside the diner Aug. 29, 2022. Credit: Alex V. Hernandez/Block Club Chicago

Papatheofanis was a floor manager at Sable when he met Mendoza, who was working as a server. Zamler was most recently The Press Room’s executive chef. 

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

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

“We want to be as focused as possible on this project because of its sentimental value,” Papatheofanis said. “We understand how important first impressions are, too. We’re just really trying to work hard to make sure everything’s dialed in before opening our doors.”

The menu is still being finalized, but it will feature diner staples made with ingredients sourced from local farms and vendors, Papatheofanis said. 

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

Additionally, instead of typical pop, the diner will carry Jones Soda, a craft beverage made with pure cane sugar, he said. 

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

Papatheofanis said he is excited to continue his family’s legacy and have his kids work alongside him at the family business as he once did, he said. 

“Greeks name their kids after their parents. My firstborn boy is named Dimitri after my father. I figured I already paid homage to him, so now it’s my turn to pay homage to my mom Irene with the restaurant,” he said. “It’s always been about family for me.”

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