Every neighborhood has a neighborhood joint. There’s nothing special about the place. You get a burger, some scrambled eggs, some hash browns, a cup of coffee. You sit and read the paper while some friends come over and say hello, and the owner makes enough small talk that you feel good about not trying someplace new.
In Lake View, the joint is called Stella’s Diner, formerly the Lakefront Diner, owned and operated by the sister-and-brother team of Maria and Gus Mavraganes (right). Their parents, Jimmy and Stella, started the business in 1962, along with Jimmy’s brother Angelo. They couldn’t afford a new sign back then so they picked up a used one. For no other reason, the place was originally called The Wheel-A-Round.
The city has changed. The neighborhood has changed. (People used to drink from bottles in brown bags; now they drink from them in Bugaboo strollers.) Even the idea of neighborhood has changed. It used to mean something to say you were from Bridgeport or Back of the Yards or Canaryville or West Rogers Park. It used to be a part of your DNA. Now nobody stays in the same place. Your parents retire and buy a high-rise condo on the lake in a neighborhood where there were only offices a few years ago. Your kid goes to the best high school her grades or your family budget will allow, not the one down the block. And when she moves out of the house, she’s as likely to head to Brooklyn as to Bucktown. We scatter. We ramble and roam. We move on because we think it’s the same as moving up.
But the neighborhood joint reminds us how it used to be. The neighborhood joint fights back.
At Stella’s, the name and the décor have changed. And sure, the menu does include a blue cheese pecan salad. But so what? You walk in, and Gus and Maria know your name. Or at least they pretend to. And they’ll still respect you if you order the blue cheese pecan salad.
“This place is Mayberry,” says Gus, 52, a big man with tattoos running down both arms. “I live the life of Andy Taylor. I’m the sheriff. I know everybody. Everybody knows me. Little kids run in and wrap their arms around me. What’s not to love?”
Gus and Maria’s parents, immigrants from Greece, worked hard so their kids could have something better, something easier, something different. It didn’t exactly go according to plan. Now Gus’s 23-year-old son is beginning to fill in for his father and aunt.
“I really fought the idea of my son being in the business,” says Gus, running a hand through graying hair. “But I have to admit, there’s a great deal of pride in knowing it will carry on.”
Photograph: Kim Thornton