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8 Lessons On Food And Life That I Learned From The Parthenon

By Anthony Todd in Food on Sep 8, 2016 2:25PM

Photo via Facebook.

On Wednesday, I learned that one of the most iconic restaurants in my life, The Parthenon, closed after 48 years in business. Anytime a restaurant that venerable closes its doors, it's something of a tragedy, but this particular closing had a very personal impact on me.

Without the Parthenon, I might not be alive. I certainly wouldn't be the person I am today.

Sadly, this isn't a story of a dramatic rescue from choking by a waiter or a miracle cure for cancer developed from leftover gyros. It's much simpler: My parents had their first date at this Greektown restaurant more than 40 years ago.

My father called me last night after he heard the news, joking that I needed to look at photographs or gaze into the mirror, just in case some retroactive version of the Back to the Future fading effect began, since the Parthenon was no more. Luckily, I'm still here.

I've been going to that restaurant for almost 30 years, and it's not an exaggeration to say that most of my restaurant memories from childhood (and therefore, many of my formative experiences as a pre-food writer) had something to do with the Parthenon. How to order dinner, what foods I wanted to eat and what atmosphere I wanted to eat them in; all of these preferences were shaped by this one, single restaurant filled with warm feelings, loud cries of "opa!" and cheese-scented fireballs reaching toward the ceiling.

So to memorialize the place, and its impact on at least one Chicagoan, here's my list of the eight life lessons I learned from The Parthenon.

1) If you love something other people think is silly, embrace it.

Just like normal Chicagoans compare favorite deep dish pizza spots, some of us (including some food writers) compare favorite Greek restaurants. I can't tell you the sheer amount of mockery I've been subjected to over the years for glorifying this place. I've gotten disdainful looks, complaints about how it's like a Greek food theme park and loud insistence that other restaurants are better. I think I may have lost a freelance assignment once by suggesting a listicle include The Parthenon.

But here's the thing: I loved it anyway, and so did many other people. Be a snob all you want, but when that table was filled with gyros and everyone was talking and laughing, there's just about no place better to be in the world. In the end, it doesn't really matter whether a restaurant is "good" or "correct" or "authentic." All that matters is that you love it and it makes you happy.

2) Your food preferences are shaped pretty early, and sometimes you should revel in them.

I told a story yesterday about how my parents would order me plate after plate of olives when I was three years old, because I, inexplicably, wanted to eat them even at that age. Since I am now a passionate defender, in print and in person, of the olive-tastic dirty martini, clearly it made an impact.

Lots of other food preferences were formed during my early Parthenon years. To this day, I can eat a literally infinite amount of salad, and have downed entire Greek salads for 4, dripping with oil, by myself. I have a persistent love of iceberg lettuce and bad out-of-season cucumbers. I have always, and will always, prefer lamb to beef. I can't stand anything wrapped in grape leaves, no matter how many times you try to convince me I'm wrong. And that strange Greek egg/lemon soup? It's awful, and I don't want to hear otherwise.

3) Go at your own pace.

Anyone who dined regularly at the Parthenon knew the legendary speed with which their kitchen would spit out dishes. The cynics might say it's because the food was, shall we say, mass produced. No matter what, if you gave a server your entire order at once, you were guaranteed to be out the door within 40 minutes. Not exactly a relaxing dining experience. My family developed secret strategies to cope with this (almost amounting to hand signals) and would always insist that we had absolutely no idea what we might want to order beyond the first course, forcing the restaurant to pace itself. That was the key to a pleasant meal.

I encounter this issue in new restaurants almost every week. It's become de rigueur for a server at a nice restaurant to insist you spit out an entire order of 15 small plates all at once at the beginning of the night, accompanied by a promise that they (or the kitchen) will "course them out" for you. Yeah right. More often than not, everything hits at once and the only apology you get is a shrug. Take a lesson from the Parthenon, and insist on going at your own pace.

4) Better to ask forgiveness than permission.

This is one of my most ridiculous memories. The Parthenon was having a rare off night, and they'd forgotten to bring several dishes to our table. When the server brought the traditional Saganaki (flaming cheese) to the table after a long wait, they left a shot glass filled with brandy sitting at the table next to my father's seat. He assumed that it was a gift from the server, a minor recompense for the mix up, and knocked it back.

When the server returned, he was utterly confused. Where was his brandy, he asked? Without this shot of utter rotgut poured, it turned out, from a bottom-of-the-bottom shelf plastic handle of booze, he couldn't set the neighboring table's cheese on fire. I was utterly horrified and honestly scared that we'd be tossed out on our ears. But with a few gregarious words, the problem was solved and everyone laughed.

It's a rare occasion when something can't be fixed when you're nice and genuine, and sometimes, especially when booze is already on the table, it's better to forge ahead and deal with the consequences afterwards.

5) Good company is more important than fine wine.

The Parthenon was famous for serving liter bottles of roditis (a Greek rose) for under $20 in un-labeled, clearly refilled wine bottles. My family used to joke that they got the wine in 100-gallon oil drums that they kept somewhere in the alley, and it pretty much tasted that way. Any wine expert would be utterly horrified.

But here's the thing: I don't regret a single roditis hangover. When that bottle started pouring, I was inevitably with good friends or family, and the common, lowbrow experience helped everyone to open up. You can keep your $1000 Napa Cab; when I'm low, I'll forever dream of unmarked bottles of bad rose.

6) Always associate with unabashedly enthusiastic people.

The Parthenon literally became a litmus test for people in my life. Could you toss off your cynicism and revel in the ridiculousness? You're probably someone I want to have around. Too cool to enjoy yourself at a restaurant with bad murals of Greek landmarks on the walls? You're probably not someone I'm gonna be close to.

All of my best friends (and my successful dating partners) have loved the place, and it's taught me that I have no patience for people who can't openly express enthusiasm about things. Too cool for school (or for cheesy Greek spots)? You're probably too cool for me.

7) Everything tastes better after it's been on fire.

It's just true. Whether it be bananas foster, cherries jubilee, steak diane or, yes, saganaki, everything is better flambeed. Because of a combination of changing trends and, I suspect, insurance regulations, the number of restaurants that flame anything tableside decreases every year, and this was one of the most notable.

But I dare you to watch a waiter flame five giant platers of cheese running up and down his arm all at once, and not be moved to applaud. Restauranteurs of Chicago, a promise to you: if you set things on fire, I'll show up.

8) Never assume something will last forever.

Even when it's been open for 48 years.