Tucked just off the bustling Armitage Street on Webster, Chicago’s Athenian Room is a family owned gem in a city that is being taken over by restaurant groups. Although I do enjoy many of the restaurants owned by these groups – like Cafe Ba-Ba-Reba, they are all starting to seem the same. They have large loud rooms and aren’t the best place to go if you don’t want to scream across the table. They offer small plate style meals, have a huge crowd of singles at the bar, and try to wow you with their fancy websites, obscure name, and rustic/modern decor. In a sea of these cookie cutter restaurant group places that are constantly trying to out do each other while recycling the same ideas, the Athenian Room’s low key atmosphere and homey ambiance won me over years ago and it has become one of my favorite restaurants.
Going to the Athenian Room is kinda like taking a ride in the Delorean and going back in time a few decades. There just aren’t that many family owned restaurants anymore and it is a shame. The Athenian Room opened in 1972 and is still under the same ownership. When you walk in the door to the Athenian Room you are usually greeted by the owner. He is a warm easy-going guy. Last time I went there I asked to sit outside, and he kindly said that was fine, handed me two menus and told me I could pick any table outside that I wanted. When you visit a family owned restaurant like the Athenian Room you feel as though you are being welcomed into someone’s home. The layout of the Athenian Room seems to emphasize this. You don’t step into a grand foyer with a handful fashionably dressed hostesses; you walk into an entryway that houses an open section of the kitchen. The space has an air of familiarity to it. Wooden tables and chairs fill a modest sized dinning room to the right. Paper place mats sit on the tables instead of white table cloths. The white walls with exposed brick arches give the space a Greek feel.
Once I called the Athenian Room to ask for a reservation. The owner answered the phone and explained that they do not take reservations. I have had this conversation with many restaurants and usually it ends there. In this case the owner was apologetic and wanted to know what time I was thinking of coming in. He then gave me advice on what times we would be able to get in with no or little wait. We went at a time he suggested, around 8 on a Friday and we got in no problem. I thought this interaction with the owner was so charming because it was clear that he wanted my business. He genuinely wanted me to go to the restaurant – and he didn’t want me to have to wait in a long line to get in. This is the exact opposite of so many Chicago restaurants, that have this “we are so popular it’s impossible to get a table” pretentious attitude. It is nice to feel wanted.
The Athenian Room does not serve alcohol and it is not a BYOB. The restaurant is connected to Glascotts Groggery and you may buy drinks there and carry them over. I love this little quirk. I think it says something about the business owners, that they want to help each other out – another thing that can be rare in cities. You can drink Glascott’s beer (or any alcohol) at Athenian Room, or eat Athenian Room’s food at Glascott’s. From what a little online research taught me, this arrangement dates back to 1972. When Glascott’s first opened they served food, but they decided to focus only on drinks, so they rented out their kitchen and Athenian Room was born. Athenian Room started off with just the kitchen and entryway space but grew over time and became a sit down restaurant. The Glascott’s/Athenian Room friendliness continues to this day. Glascott’s is the prefect place to wait for a table at Athenian Room on a busy night, or to grab a post dinner drink.
As much as I love the fact the restaurant is family owned and has a quietly charming atmosphere, I really go there for the food which is fantastic. Charles and I honeymooned in Greece and the food at Athenian Room is on par with the best restaurants we went to in Greece. After returning to the restaurant after our honeymoon, I realized how similar it is to the taverns in Greece. The Greek people are so nice and welcoming, and the interior of the restaurant looks like it was taken straight from Athens. My friends Anne and Alex honeymooned in Hawaii and she just wrote about how Hawaiian restaurants now have a special significance to them because it reminds them of their honeymoon. Charles and I kept saying how much we loved Greece and the food there, and dining at Athenian Room is an easy and cheap way to get the Greek experience.
The Athenian Room got a little famous in 2010 when Tina Fey posted a video online professing her love for their roast chicken. I agree with Tina, and the roast chicken, called the Kalamata Chicken, is my favorite. Roast chicken sounds a bit boring, but this isn’t. The chicken is perfectly crisp on the outside, juicy on the inside, and coated with the perfect blend of spices. The chicken comes on top of thick Greek fries, another food that has the potential to be boring. These fries are out of this world because they are both crisp and completely soaked in the incredible herb chicken juice. Every time I order the Kalamata Chicken I say that it is too much food – and then proceed to eat every last bite. It is just that good. Some restaurants would raise their price on the dish that a celebrity raves about online – causing an increase in business. Not Athenian Room, the Kalamata Chicken is still $9.50. An incredible deal for so much delicious food. Plus the Kalamata Chicken comes with a salad! And they give you bread when you sit down at the table. What on earth happened to restaurants serving a salad with your meal? The salad at Athenian Room isn’t fancy, its just lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and an oil and vinegar dressing with a healthy amount of salt and pepper – but it tastes great.
Charles ordered the gyro. For anyone who is not familiar with gyro, it is a sandwich made with meat cooked on a vertical spit. The crisp meal is then shaved off into strips and served on a pita with tomatoes, onion, lettuce, and tzatziki sauce. It also comes with the crisp fries, even though they are not soaked with the chicken juice – they do taste great with tzatziki. The pita at Athenian Room is homemade and it makes you realize that store-bought pitas are horrible. Store bought pitas are hard and dry, whereas these homemade pitas are slightly toasted on the outside but chewy on the inside.
The Athenian Room is perhaps the best cheap meal in Chicago. Our bill was $24. Of course this is for food only since our drinks were purchased next door at Glascott’s, but regardless $24 for a delicious dinner for two at a sit down restaurant in Chicago is one of the best deals out there. If you haven’t been yet, you need to check out Athenian Room. If you don’t trust me, trust Tina Fey.
Athenian Room is located at 807 West Webster in Lincoln Park, Chicago.
Monday 1st of October 2012
You already know I love this place! Great review...I also enjoy the fact that it's family-owned & has down-to-earth people running to show. So refreshing in Chicago.