Saturday, May 25, 2024

The Lincoln Restaurant, 4008 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago. (1970-2013)

The Lincoln Restaurant, 4008 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago.

John Athans started the place in the early 1970s, and his son Tony Athans helped, but John retired and closed the restaurant after 43 years. 

Athan's father, John, remembers the day he and his wife opened the restaurant when an ice cream soda cost 15¢ and an order of ham and eggs cost 35¢. John Athans immigrated to the U.S. from Greece in 1952.

He worked for a lunch counter at a local pharmacy for a few years until he saved up enough money to open his own restaurant on Lincoln Avenue. The inspiration for the name "Lincoln" came from its location. 

In 1970, he and his staff moved into the 250-seat restaurant they operated.

John Athans and his wife, Loula, tried to split the work equally. He managed the kitchen. She was responsible for the restaurant's front end and customer service. Their four sons would bus tables and serve customers.

Loula Athans was the life of the restaurant. Tony said she actively tried getting to know employees and customers, sometimes inviting people to her house for Christmas or Thanksgiving meals.

"It's a lot of hard work, and the rewards are not the same as in the old days." Tony Athans

Tony Athans graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1985 and, after working for a few other restaurants, decided to return home and help his parents run the Lincoln.

He revamped the menu using his newly acquired professional training. He made the Civil War theme more prominent, adding dishes like the Honest Abe burger and the Robert E. Lee omelet to the menu. More Lincoln memorabilia accumulated on the restaurant's walls.
Customers started joking about getting the John Wilkes Booth or asking to sit near the "Penny Wall," dotted with about 7,500 pennies, as another salute to Lincoln.

Although the Lincoln Restaurant has retained its charm over the years, customers' changing dining preferences and increasing competition from larger restaurant chains have made it harder for the small family-run business to operate, Tony Athans said. Fewer people come in on weekdays now, whereas before, the restaurant was busy throughout the week.

 The Robert E. Lee Omelet.

In recent years, the diner's challenges have included a foreclosure case regarding the building. Tony declined to comment about the litigation in detail but said the time was right to close the restaurant.
John Athans with customers.

Loula Athans died in July 2011 after battling pancreatic cancer, and things haven't been the same since. "There's a void. ... You're here at work; you put in the hours, but something is missing," Tony said.

He also wanted his 82-year-old father to enjoy his later years without worrying about the restaurant.

Since the Athans officially announced the closing of the Lincoln Restaurant, there has been an outpouring of support from the community. "When we first announced it, I thought people might stay away. It's been the exact opposite," Tony Athans said.

Sheila Sachs has eaten at the restaurant for about 30 years. Since 2001, Sachs and her friends have hosted an annual breakfast at the restaurant to commemorate President Lincoln's birthday. She's trying to get the group together to celebrate Lincoln's birthday several weeks early. It's their way of saying goodbye to the restaurant. "It's the Lincoln on Lincoln in the Land of Lincoln. You can't do it anywhere else," Sachs said.

"The Lincoln is like a second family," Tony said, looking around the restaurant. It's almost like a family member has passed. Now, you can no longer see the regular customers who come in simultaneously; many people eat the same thing. It's going to be tough."
The Lincoln Restaurant, 4008 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago.
The Lincoln Restaurant closed on December 30, 2013, after a 43-year run.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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