"Chicago" by Carl Sandburg

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders

-excerpt from the poem "Chicago" by Carl Sandburg (1916)

Chicago Skyline

Chicago Skyline
The Chicago Skyline from a Near West Side highrise

Sunday, June 10, 2012


The Breakdown
Welcome to Little Athens!
An overview: Greektown, a neighborhood within a larger neighborhood (West Loop), within an even larger neighborhood (Near West Side).  Although not large in terms of geography, Greektown does loom large as a classic, authentic ethnic neighborhood sitting just outside downtown.  Running down Halsted are no fewer than a dozen Grecian restaurants (where you’re just as likely to hear Greek as English), a couple taverns, a few small shops and grocers, and the strip’s new anchor, the recently opened National Hellenic Museum.

Sitting a few blocks south of the Randolph Street foodie’s wet dream, and less than a mile northeast of recently reinvigorated and gentrified Little Italy, Greektown sometimes gets lost in the culinary mix.  But it’s definitely a worthwhile investment of time for a light al fresco lunch with a chilled glass of white wine, or a late dinner in a neighborhood that’s rocking up to 4 A.M.

Temple of Van Buren at Halstedopoulos.
The boundaries: Tiny little Greektown rests entirely within a two by five block area.  Madison Street lies to the north, Green Street to the west, I-290 (Eisenhower Expressway) to the south, and I-90/94 (Kennedy Expressway) to the east.  Running right down the middle is Halsted Street, which is host to the vast majority of the neighborhood’s dining and nightlife.

Population make-up: Greektown is far too small to have its own Census tract.  As of 2010, it shares one going all the way west to Ashland.  The make-up of this particular tract is 64% white, 16% black, 10% Asian, and 7% Hispanic.  There are numerous lofts around the neighborhood that have been converted from warehouses in the past 10 to 15 years, ensuring an always lively, vibrant community.

A brief history: Greeks began to come over to Chicago in the 1840s, and by the early 1900s had established a neighborhood of their own just south of present-day Greektown.  This area, known as The Delta, was the largest concentration of Greeks in the United States for much of the twentieth century, with nearly 30,000 calling the area home.  The development of the interstate highway system in the 1950s (I-290 specifically in this instance), as well as the development of the University of Illinois at Chicago, led to an exodus of most of the area’s Greek population.
Halsted & Jackson.  The heart of Greektown.

Despite this, the Grecian influence never left.  Today, the Halsted strip between Madison and the Eisenhower thrives as a classic ethnic neighborhood, alive at all hours of the day, especially on weekend evenings.  Though not large in terms of geography, Chicago’s Greektown stands as one of the best (if not the best) authentic Greektowns in the entire country.

Getting there: By L, it’s as easy as taking the Blue Line to UIC-Halsted.  Make sure you take the ramp up to Halsted and take a left.  It’ll take you right into the southern entryway to Greektown.  

You can also get there on the bus.  Going north-south, just take the Halsted bus (8).  Going east-west, there’s the Madison bus (20) too.

Greek Islands (200 S. Halsted Street)
Adams Street is KINDA like the Mediterranean Sea...
Billing itself on its website as “America’s Most Popular Greek Restaurant”, Greek Islands has been a Greektown anchor since 1971.  With so many restaurants along Halsted, it’s hard to choose one over the other.  However, with history and reputation on its side (highest rated Greektown restaurant on Yelp!), we decided to head over to Greek Islands for an al fresco lunch.

Michael’s Take: Although we didn’t dine inside the dining room, Greek Islands shares another favorable commonality with its fellow Greektown brethren: pleasant springtime outdoor dining.  Sitting at the corner of Halsted & Adams, the people watching is good, but the food is even more enjoyable.  I had a platter of kontosouvli, basically like gyros but made from pork instead of lamb.  The meat was juicy, with a wonderful light char.  It’s served with the standard pita bread and tzatziki, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Kreatopita overflowing with delicious meat.
Laura’s Take: At Greek Islands I felt like I was back in Italy for the afternoon. I think it was just the people sitting outside on the street for a long lunch, the sun, and the light Mediterranean food that reminded me of it. For food I had the Kreatopita meat pie. Pastry and spinach were the other major ingredients other than the beef, and it was all really flaky, flavorful, and balanced. Being a carb person I was glad it came with sides of potatoes and rice. So perfect for a filling lunch with white house wine. Service-wise, the staff was attentive and on top of their outside patio.

Anything Else We Missed: Lunch entrees will run you anywhere from about $12-$18.  For suburbanites who don’t want to hike it to the city, there’s a second location in Lombard.  If you want to try something else though, Santorini is also highly valued, which is right across the street and has a terrific fish menu.  Both Greek Islands and Santorini offer free valet parking during lunchtime as well.

Pan Hellenic Pastry Shop (322 S. Halsted Street)
Keep an eye out or you might miss it!
Sitting across the street from the new, pristine National Hellenic Museum, is a charming bakery with a non-descript exterior.  If you don’t notice the sandwich board out front, chances are good you’ll walk right past it.  Whether taking a little time to relax and savor some sweetness, or picking up a treat for a special occasion, Pan Hellenic Pasty Shop is not only worth stopping in, it’s worth going out of your way to patronize.

Michael’s Take: This place is fantastic.  We dropped in to pick up some coffee and a piece of baklava on the fly and ended up chilling there for a half-hour, sitting by the window and savoring a perfect Saturday afternoon.  We were greeted by the lone employee, and he offered us a table, bringing us our order of coffee and baklava.  Their Greek coffee was strong, flavorful.  The baklava was magnificent just to look at, laced with honey and topped by a healthy dusting of cinnamon.  It’s perfectly sweet, nutty, and perfectly crisp.  While you can get trays or individual desserts to go, if you have time, it’s well worth it to savor something sweet inside the shop.

OK, we'll take one of everything then.

Laura’s Take: I can’t wait to go back to this shop! What a cute surprise; I had no idea it was there, although I don’t know how I would have known. It’s so nice to see a small independent place dedicated to sweets, but it was just as good to see that they had a case with homemade greek yogurt, and a menu that included non-sweets. There were a couple people hanging out solo while we were there, one studying in the corner. The guy who was working that day really cared about what he was selling us and put in the extra effort to ask us what we thought even though we each had just a piece of baklava. WHAT baklava, though. This was one of the best, most satisfying pieces I ever remember eating. Not too nutty, it was absolutely fresh, moist with honey and perfect with coffee and a garnish of cinnamon. I think actually that I am forever addicted.

Anything Else We Missed: Although not the most inexpensive pastry shop (baklava starts at $2.45 apiece), it’s consistency and service that makes this place worth the extra money.  Besides hand-held sweets and cakes, Pan Hellenic Pastry shop also makes spanakopita, pizza, and awesome Greek yogurt.
You want to EAT this!

Zeus Gyros (806 W. Jackson Boulevard)
Ahh yes, Zeus, Greek god of cucumber sauce.
Possibly the least assuming gyros joint in Greektown, Zeus sits just west of Halsted on Jackson.  A little joint that seats about 20 comfortably, this little dive serves up the usual suspects.

Michael’s Take: The gyros/chicken combo platter is a great way to go.  Splitting it with a bev cost a total of about $10 and it was plenty for two people.  The gyros were what you’d hope they would be: tender with just a hint of charrage.  The chicken was a pleasant surprise too.  The meat was juicy and flavorful.  Throw some of that onto the pita with tzatziki and you’re getting good in the ‘hood.  Plus, with a side of lettuce and tomato, you can at least tell yourself that it’s ok…this lunch is GOOD for you.  You know what I’m saying?

Laura’s Take: As far as greasy spoons go, Zeus Gyros got the job done. Nothing too unexpected, but anything in the way of grilled chicken, burgers, beef and lamb gyros, pitas, and such, you will be satisfied. I bet it is much fuller late at night or during the lunch hour.

Anything Else We Missed: Though you have several options for gyros in Greektown, Zeus currently is top of the pops on Yelp!  However, you can also get a solid gyros (or is that singular “gyro”) at the appropriately named Greektown Gyros at the northeast corner of Jackson and Halsted.  The sandwich is money and you can get Greek fries which are fries just covered in feta cheese and a healthy dash of oregano.
There's a salad buried somewhere down in there...

Dugan's on Halsted (128 S. Halsted Street)
A little slice of Dublin...inside a little slice of Athens.
Whoa whoa whoa, timeout for Twix.  So you went to Greektown to drink in an IRISH PUB???  Errrmmm…well…ahhhhh…hehe…yeah….so here’s the deal: there are a couple of places to drink in Greektown.  Unfortunately, your daytime beverage sipping options are pretty much limited to Dugan’s.  So if you want a cold one, say, after lunch, you don’t have to move on to the West Loop or Little Italy or West Town.  And besides, even in Greektown, it’s nice to have options, right?

Michael’s Take: Dugan’s is a relatively non-descript tavern.  It’s small and kinda dank, but as far as dives go this one’s at least worth checking out for two reasons.  First of all, a pretty good beer list featuring local brews.  They have Metropolitan, Finch’s, and 5 Rabbit options on tap, all of which are worth getting a pint of to support the local economy.  Also, open window seating on Halsted provides a spectacular east-facing view of the skyline, and some solid people watching.

Laura’s Take: We passed some of the tenser NATO rioting hours here at Dugan’s. We could hear sirens in the distance, but the city felt like a long way off from the calm pedestrian traffic passing us on Halsted. Other than a family stopping in after the beach, the place was pretty empty, but again, bar options are limited in Greektown. Other than a general wipe-down, this place had everything under control. I’d be back if I wanted to take a break for a beer in the neighborhood.

Dugan's has a slightly rustic interior.

Anything Else We Missed:
There’s also another Dugan’s on the northwest side of the City near Milwaukee and Elston.  However, if you’re in Greektown and want to go to a Greek tavern, check out Ambrosia Sports Bar (aka Gyro Bar).  Why is it Gyro Bar?  Well because it’s connected to the aforementioned Greektown Gyros, and you can bring in your gyros and eat it AND enjoy your $2 PBR.  It’s a dive, but the drinking area is pretty clean and George makes sure nobody gives you a hard time.  Plus there’s always a good mix of people, different ages, ethnicities, and music tastes on the jukebox.  Worth checking out if you’re in Greektown in the evening and find yourself wanting to bless the rains down in Africa.

Greektown: The Final Tally
Opened in late 2011, the National Hellenic Museum
has opened to great attention and rave reviews.
Greektown does what the best ethnic neighborhoods do best.  It’s provides an authentic, lively experience in the heart of the city, bringing another part of the world to ours.  With the columns on Halsted at Monroe and at Van Buren, and with the white cross and stripes on the sea blue background adorned along the light posts, there’s no mistaking your location.  People are outside savoring food and drink, Halsted is thriving with foot and auto traffic, Greektown is ALIVE.

Greektown may not offer the abundance and diverse dining, drinking, and entertainment options that other neighborhoods offer.  It’s certainly not large enough, but it need not do so anyway.  You go to Greektown for al fresco and people watching.  You go to Greektown for meat on a spit.  You go to Greektown for opa!  The Greeks take pride in their food and their hospitality.  With so many ethnic influences throughout the Windy City, sometimes it’s easy to forget the impression that they have left on Chicago.  Fortunately, on a brief stretch of Halsted, there’s still a place where the vibrancy of the Mediterranean shines through.

Greektown: up close and personal

In Greektown, dogs drive cars and people whiz on fire hydrants.

The Loop hovers over Greektown.

Walking towards downtown
over I-90/94.

Kontosouvli.  Like a gyros but...gulp...better?

"You know what that is???  That's a spit!!!" -Bobby Knight
Halsted is rockin' at all hours of the day.  In the distant background is UIC's campus.

Greektown (greenish-blue to the west) is barely a 10-minute walk to the Loop (dark blue).


  1. Where's the review of Gyro Bah?!?

  2. Hey, you get a picture of Gyro Bah, and you be happy about it!