After 48 years of lighting sizzling plates of cheese afire, the Chicago restaurant generally regarded as the first to serve flaming saganaki has closed. The Parthenon, in the city’s Greektown neighborhood, shuttered without fanfare after Monday’s service. A half century ago, many of Chicago’s restaurants were owned by Greeks, but despite this fact few were actually serving Greek food. Eventually, a three-block stretch of Halsted Street on the city’s Near West Side became the epicenter of Greek cooking in Chicago.
The Parthenon was one such restaurant, opened in July 1968 by brothers Chris and Bill Liakouras. Never to waste an opportunity for Greek theatrical flair, the brothers decided to light a plate of fried cheese at the suggestion of one customer. So they took battered slabs of kasseri cheese, doused it with a splash of brandy and lit it tableside.
Like a Baked Alaska or Steak Diane, it was a dramatic dish that turned heads of surrounding customers. Diners would see a whoosh of flame the next table over, punctuated by an “Opa!” from the server. It became the restaurant’s calling card, and soon imitated the world over. John Anagnostopoulos, the library and oral history manager for Chicago’s National Hellenic Museum, told the Chicago Tribune in 2014 he could find no competing claims from others claiming to have invented flaming saganaki.
So the legend of The Parthenon’s role in Greek-American culinary history stands, even though the restaurant is no more.