It’s hard to justify leaving the Greek islands for the Midwest in midwinter, but the team behind DineAmic Hospitality (Bar Siena, Prime & Provisions) have persuaded two chefs to abandon the island of Mykonos to come to Chicago to open their new modern Greek restaurant in Fulton Market. Lyra debuts tomorrow evening, January 29.
“We’re opening an urban, West Loop version of a place in Greece,” says co-owner David Rekhson. “But we don’t have the Aegean to look at, only the street.”
There will, however, be charcoal- and wood-fired ovens in an open kitchen turning out Greek classics like grilled octopus marinated in balsamic vinegar and eggplant spread, as well as modern variations like deconstructed pastisio, the Greek version of lasagna, and shrimp saganaki, broiled with a bubbly, cheesy crust. Even the cocktails at the bar will incorporate Greek ingredients, not just ouzo, but also oregano and dehydrated Greek sugar.
Lyra has been in the works for quite a while. Rekhson’s wife is Greek American, and they frequently visit her family in Nafpaktos on the southern edge of the Greek mainland. He invited his business partner, Lucas Stoioff, to come along on one of those trips, and Stoioff also fell in love with the food and culture, specifically the emphasis on organic ingredients and the philosophy of philoxenia, or hospitality.
Stoioff and Rekhson began planning their own Greek restaurant about three years ago with the intention of opening in October 2020. For research purposes, the two partners spent some time pre-pandemic eating their way through the Greek islands. On Mykonos, they met Athinagoras Kostakos and Alexis Zopas, the culinary director and executive chef at Scorpios, a popular beachside restaurant. (Kostakos also won the Greek edition of Top Chef.) The Americans were impressed, not just with the food, but with the overall vibe, and invited the two Greeks to come to Chicago to be the chef-partners in their new venture. “We apologized in advance for the weather,” Stoioff jokes.
They also discovered the inspiration for the name of the restaurant on Mykonos: a harp that they heard a street performer play one night. Lyra is also a constellation, depicted in a wooden mural that hangs in the main dining room.
Kostakos and Zopas, who will return to Greece periodically on a rotating basis, were involved in many aspects of Lyra beyond the cooking, including training the staff — some of whom have also been imported from Greece, while several American cooks and servers traveled to Scorpios in a sort of exchange program — and designing the restaurant itself. Rekhson and Stoioff rejected the blue-and-white color scheme and touristy photos of many Greek restaurants in favor of a more rustic, bohemian design that recreates the atmosphere of a small island village. There are trellises, bougainvillea, and, in one of the private dining rooms, shutters that appear to be illuminated by the sun setting behind them. It can practically feed an entire village, too: The main dining room seats 120, while the bar has room for 50, and the two private dining rooms, which seat 40 people each, can be used for overflow. In warmer weather, the outdoor patio can hold an additional 100 diners.
The centerpiece of Lyra will be the open kitchen, one step above the main dining room, like an agora in an ancient Greek city. The chefs are working toward a blend of freshness and authenticity: the meat, seafood, and vegetables will all be sourced from local providers, but the pantry items, such as olive oil, olives, capers, and salt, will be imported from the motherland, as will roughly 60 percent of the wine cellar. Much of the menu will be inspired by food Kostakos and Zopas grew up eating. There will be neither flaming cheese nor gyros: both these dishes, Rekhson points out, were actually invented in the United States.
“It’s such simple food,” says Stoioff, “but it has complex flavors, and a lot of passion goes into it.”
Modern Greek and Mediterranean cuisines are having something of a moment in Chicago right now: both Andros Taverna and Avli on the Park have opened in the past year, and Nisos will join them in the spring. But Stoioff and Rekhson are confident that Lyra will stand out.
“In Chicago, there are so many Greek restaurants that have come before us — there’s an entire neighborhood — so this was no easy task,” says Stoioff. “But we’ve learned a lot from the greats that have come before us. We’re more passionate about this than we’ve ever been before.”
See below for more highlights from Lyra’s menu.