No, Louie Alexakis’ new Greek restaurant in Lincoln Park won’t serve gyros, at least not immediately. Alexakis’ suburban restaurant, Avli Estiatorio, has wowed critics for the last two years in Winnetka, and he’s adapting the formula for his two upcoming restaurants in Chicago. The first restaurant, Avli Taverna, could open in late September inside the former Tavish space at 1335 W. Wrightwood Avenue.
As the name suggests, Avli Taverna has a larger focus on bar atmosphere. Alexakis recruited Peter Vestinos — the respected bartender whose credits include Sepia and The Betty — to create drinks. He’s also a partner at Gold Coast cocktail bar Sparrow and runs a cocktail consulting company. He doesn’t want to give the drink list away, but Alexakis wants to showcase Greek wines — he considers Greek whites among the best in the world. The second restaurant, simply called Avli, will be a more formal spot. It should open sometime next year at 702 N. Wells Street.
While the wine list will be 100 percent Greek, Alexakis also wants to teach Chicagoans how to properly drink ouzo, the famous aperitif that’s heavily consumed in Greece. Staff will serve mini carafes with the proper accoutrements and an instruction booklet, at least that’s the plan.
“It’s a sipping drink; you pour it over ice, you add water,” Alexakis said. “You never drink ouzo without food, that’s the biggest faux pas ever.”
Just because there’s a bar component doesn’t mean Alexakis will compromise on the food. Alexakis is an ambassador for Greek culture, passionate about the country’s culinary history. He talks about how dumplings made it to Greece.
“They’re called mandu in Korea...” he said. “By the time it gets to Greece you get manti.”
They’ll serve seasonal manti at the taverna, stuffing them with seafood and veggies. For the fall opening, they may start with ground lamb. But against traditional American-based stereotypes, not all Greek food contains meat. Alexakis wants to broaden horizons, and his city restaurant will have vegan options. While many restaurants in Greektown serve spanakopita, Alexakis is mindful that there’s more to savory Greek pastries than spinach and feta. Restaurants in Greece may serve five or six different kinds filled with veggies like leeks, fennel, and kale. The reason Greek restaurants in Chicago serve only one version is many of those restaurants have owners who immigrated from the same general area in Greece, according to Alexakis.
And that’s one reason he won’t start out with gyros. While the restaurant will have recognizable dishes, he believes it’s time to try something different.
“We are probably going to push [customers who want gyros] toward the rotisserie pork,” Alexakis said.
Alexakis compared Greek food to Korean and Mexican food, as Chicago chefs have challenged their customers by serving more than traditional favorites. The classics are still around, as after opening in Winnetka, Alexakis saw his customer base had an appetite for some of the older dishes so he brought a few back. Gyros may eventually appear on Avli Taverna’s menu.
“Even fast casual get Bib Gourmands because they do one or two things extremely well,” Alexakis said. “Or perhaps they reintroduce an ethnic dish that wasn’t quite popular.”
Sports fans take note, longtime Chicago sportscaster Lou Canellis — currently on Fox Chicago — is an investor in the restaurant. A third partner, William V. Glastris Jr., was the former chair at Kronos Foods, the Chicago company known for supplying Greek restaurants with gyros and pita.
Alexakis was careful about revealing menu details. He’ll share them in the coming weeks.