Stella’s Diner: A place to call home
today at 7:45 am
“Do you have a favorite memory of Gus?”
“Oh God, so many come to mind,” Maria replied.
Maria is Gus’ younger sister and the current Owner/Manager of Stella’s Diner here in Lakeview East.
The story of Stella’s Diner begins all the way back in the 1950s with Gus and Maria’s parents. The two immigrated to Chicago from Greece with little to no money. Maria’s Mom, Stella, worked at her uncle’s restaurant in the old Back of the Yards neighborhood. Maria’s Dad, Jimmy, worked as a line cook at the Tribune Tower coffee shop. The two got married and in 1962 opened their very first diner, the one that would eventually become Stella’s.
“Both of them were amazing cooks,” Maria said. “At first it was just a little, little bitty diner, just a counter and an open kitchen. And they worked that together from around 1962 to 1971.”
The original restaurant was called the Wheel-A-Round. The significance behind the name? Nothing really. Jimmy and Stella didn’t have enough money for a sign so they bought one real cheap and hung it up on the restaurant.
Stella would open the diner at 6 am sharp, seven days a week. She’d work the mornings and afternoons. Jimmy would take over in the evenings so one of them was always at home to watch over their three sons and youngest daughter. The Mavraganes family grew up right behind the Music Box Theatre.
In 1972, Maria’s parents moved to their current, much larger diner location at 3042 North Broadway.
“They had a really strong work ethic,” Maria said. “They both worked seven days a week for most of their lives. Customer service was always their first priority. They said the customer’s always right, always take care of the customer. And that’s what we learned as well.”
Maria, Gus, Angelo, and Pete learned a lot from their parents, diving into the restaurant at an early age.
“We all started working there since before we were teenagers,” Maria said. “Started out as dishwashers, then we started bussing counters. Full-time when we were 18 and it was always assumed that we would take it over and we did. Angelo learned to cook. I moved up to waitress and front of the house manager. Gus was all around manager. So we all had our departments that we took care of.”
If you look at the Stella’s menu of 2020, a lot of the favorite go-to meals were around 50-60 years ago.
“The biggest seller for us is the roast turkey dinner because we make the fresh turkey every day,” Maria said. “Everybody loves the fresh turkey because very few places do that anymore. It’s always some kind of deli style turkey and that’s it. But we roast a fresh turkey and a fresh ham every day. We learned from our parents. Everything from scratch. Original recipes. We even do our own hand shredded hash browns, which, you know, nobody does that very much anymore.”
Some customers have been ordering that turkey dinner for decades. One of the joys for Maria is seeing these long-time customers now bringing in new members of their family.
“We’ve got sometimes four generations of people coming into the restaurant,” Maria said. “We have one lady who’s gonna be 90-years-old next year and she’s been coming here since 1972. Or just the other day, this kid came in and he’s looking at me and I’m thinking, ‘Who’s this?’ When he told me his name, I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, I haven’t seen that kid in, I don’t know, 20 years and now he’s 36-years-old and coming in with his wife who was pregnant.'”
Stella’s Diner has even been part of marriage proposals.
“We had one couple, their first date was here,” Maria said. “So we got in on the surprise, decorated the back room. When the girl walked in, the guy got on his knee in front of her family and friends and proposed with everybody cheering.”
Maria credits the Lakeview East neighborhood, how unique it is in Chicago because it feels like a small town.
“I think it’s one of the few Chicago neighborhoods that have a real neighborhood feel,” Maria said. I mean, we have customers that have been coming in here for 40 something years, you know? The majority, I would say 70% of our business is regular customers. Everybody becomes family after a while.”
You can’t talk about the neighborhood feel of Lakeview East without mentioning Stella’s Diner, just like the classic longstanding spots like The Bagel, Monsignor Murphy’s, and Friar Tuck’s. It’s kind of a chicken and the egg situation, do those places make the neighborhood feel like home or does the small town neighborhood help create those places? It’s hard to decide. Either way, Maria’s proud to be part of it.
“A lot of people say how nice it is to come into a place, for someone to know your name and recognize you and talk and ask about your life and your family. That’s what it’s like at the restaurant. It’s not like we’re just some place where you’re just a face and a number. We know most everybody, our regulars, by their first name.”
In 2001, the diner’s name changed from Wheel-A-Round to Stella’s Diner. There was a major overhaul in the restaurant design and the Stella’s Diner you see today is pretty much what it looked like 20 years ago. For the last two decades, Gus, Maria, and Angelo have been running the show (their brother Pete works as a car mechanic). Even with their kids running the show, Jimmy and Stella were still really active, wanting to be there seven days a week. Their work ethic was just as strong into their late 60s/early 70s.
In 2007, Jimmy passed away and two years later Stella joined him on the other side. Both of their memories live on with their kids, grandkids, and their honorary family at the diner.
“People always ask me, are you Stella?” Maria said. “I tell them, ‘Stella Jr.’”
Sadly, last December, Gus also joined his parents, a loss felt deeply in the Lakeview East community.
“I thought of one,” Maria said. “A favorite memory of Gus.”
“I love football, so when Gus was teaching me how to drive, he told me that driving is like football and you got the ball and everybody’s trying to get at you. Let me knock on wood, I have never had an accident because I always think of that, what he told me. He taught me how to drive stick shift in one of his vintage cars. It was a black Riviera. When I finally did get my license, one of his car buddies let me try his classic car for a block. For me being 16, it was a kick even just to drive that car. That one block.”
Gus was known for many things, one of which was his love for classic cars. He’d buy cars and restore them, always had one parked in front of the diner. People would come by and pose for pictures with the cars. This love of cars went all the way back to his teenage years when he and his buddies would go racing.
“I don’t remember where it was, but it was called the incinerators,” Maria said, reflecting on a scene that was part American Graffiti, part Fast & Furious. “It was just a run down industrial complex that hadn’t been knocked down yet. And they would go in there to race cars and they would take me with. They’d tell Mom, ‘Oh, we’re gonna, you know, take her for ice cream or something,’ and then go do some illegal street racing by the incinerators. They’d give me $10 to not stitch, which, you know, when you’re 13, 10 bucks, you’re like, yeah, absolutely. I’m not gonna say nothing. It was fun growing up with all those boys.”
The diner was like a grand stage for Gus. He became this larger than life figure, easily recognizable, seemed like he was everybody’s cool uncle and even if you’d stopped by just one time, chances are you had a conversation with him. Likely right there in the booth.
“You always saw Gus at the front, hopping in booths, talking to people,” Maria said. “He was super welcoming, very gregarious. Just made everybody feel warm and welcomed. And everybody loved it. Especially the little kids in the neighborhood. He really had a knack connecting with children. And, like I said, it’s a real family diner. People come in to have their birthday parties.”
After Gus passed away, a local petition was started by a long-time customer to name the stretch of Barry Avenue between Broadway and Halsted as “Honorary Gus Mavraganes Way.” They needed a few thousand signatures to bring it to Alderman Tom Tunney (who’s also the owner of Ann Sather restaurant), bring it up to a vote. The community flew way past the signature requirement and the plan was approved.
“When they do the dedication, we wanted to have his car club buddies come and do like a cruise around the neighborhood in all their old cars,” Maria said. “But with COVID-19, that’s not something that we want to do right now. We’re hoping by next springtime, if everything’s back to normal, we can do that.”
Life After Gus, Fighting Through COVID-19
Maria is holding the restaurant together with two other managers and their staff as they navigate through this brutally difficult year. We talked back in September, a time when restaurants were starting to open up a little bit. Now, a few days before Thanksgiving, the restrictions feel eerily similar to eight months ago.
“This year has been super tough,” Maria said. “Between just the whole COVID-19 thing and Angelo not being well (currently on medical leave) it’s very stressful because you just don’t know. Every day is something different. The fear of the unknown and what’s gonna happen in the future, how long it’s gonna go on. It’s hard not knowing.”
Maria mentioned how her team was, understandably, nervous back in March and April. They worried about contracting the virus or unknowingly passing it to their family of customers. Maria called a big meeting early on and showed everybody what to do, how to stay safe, how to sanitize.
“So far, knock on wood, we’ve opened safe and healthy.”
When talking about all of the challenges, Maria doesn’t sugar coat things. But she always goes right back into fighter mode a sentence later, sharing why giving up is never an option. Never will be.
“For us, it’s not just a job. I mean, people [on our staff] have been there 20, 30, 40 years. And like I said before, we’re all family here. All the different servers have their different set of regulars that like to sit with them, it’s just a good neighborhood family feel for us. So it’s not like, okay, I’ll lose my job and I’ll go get another one. For us, the fear of not making it through is possibly losing our family’s legacy.”
Part of the neighborhood support comes from the other restaurants on Broadway. No restaurant, from Diversey to Addison, is going through this year alone. And this sense of community amongst the restaurants is something that’s held true all the way back to those early Jimmy and Stella days at the Wheel-A-Round Diner.
“Everybody watches out for each other,” Maria said. “Nobody thinks, ‘Oh, you’re the enemy and you’re the competition.’ It’s nothing like that. Everybody watches each other’s back. I remember when I was young, every time a new business would come into the neighborhood, you send them flowers and welcome to the neighborhood. Mortar and Pestle, our neighbors, sometimes I notice he’ll be getting a delivery on the day that he’s not there and I just tell the delivery guy, leave it here, I’ll give it to him later.”
It’s awesome to hear Maria talk about her neighboring restaurants. She has the same love for them as she does for her own place.
“I love Buena Vista for Mexican. Mortar and Pestle, I think he’s an amazing chef. Everything I’ve ever eaten there is delicious. Caesar’s for their margaritas. Chilam Balam is amazing, the stuff she does, it’s just so good. They take all the Mexican spices and flavors and do so many interesting things with them. She’s great.”
And then the residents themselves. Maria is deeply thankful for everyone in the community.
“I’m so incredibly grateful that the neighborhood’s been super supportive. Through the worst of it, they really came through with delivery and carry out. I remember one night, at one point during the dinner rush, we must have gotten 40 milkshakes to go. I’m so grateful to the neighborhood for helping us survive through all of this.”
I think of Leyla and Ahmet opening Black & Caspian back in January or Deon and Oreste starting Empanada Mama and the Pie Man a few weeks ago, to them, Stella’s is the older sibling down the street. The one who teaches you how to drive. If you’re having a hard week, you can always go talk to Aunt Maria. Her advice to those starting a new restaurant:
“Be prepared for long hours in the beginning,” Maria said. “I was born into it. So it’s like second nature to me. But it’s a very difficult job. But there’s so much good to it. The people you meet, the relationships that you make. I always tell people 95% of the time, I love my job. But then there’s the days when your refrigerator crashes on you and, you know, Comcast goes out, got no Internet or credit card issue on deliveries. You have to let it all roll off.”
Because, at the end of the day, no matter how hard it gets, when you’re doing the thing you were created to do, you’ll find the energy to keep moving forward. For Maria, just like Gus, that thing is running Stella’s Diner.
“We all tried different things, but we always came back to it,” Maria said. “It’s what we call home.”
This article is part of an ongoing series this year featuring local restaurants and businesses all around Chicago. I’ve been amazed at these stories and how the themes are tying together. I’m continuing to follow where the stories lead.
To catch up on previous posts and read about other great local spots, here they are below:
- Chicago, Argentina (Part 1)
- Chicago, Argentina (Kierkegaard intermission)
- Chicago, Argentina (Part 2: The Family Behind Tango Sur)
- Chicago, Argentina (Kierkegaard Finale)
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