There’s been no shortage of new Mediterranean restaurants in Chicago lately, boasting authentic Mediterranean cuisine made from authentic Mediterranean ingredients prepared by authentic Mediterranean chefs. But Nisos, opening Friday, July 8, on Randolph Restaurant Row, will stand out, says its owner Brad Parker, on the strength of its chef, Avgaria Stapaki.
Parker and Stapaki first met six years ago. Parker, who owns Parker Hospitality, best known for the Hampton Social mini-chain, was lounging on the beach on the Greek island of Mykonos at the end of a three-week trip around the Mediterranean when a beach attendant urged him to visit Principote, where Stapaki was the chef. It was an enormous restaurant, able to seat 1,500 people, but the meal Parker ate did not taste like the end product of a long assembly line. It tasted like it had been prepared especially for him.
“How can you possibly produce that quality of food on that scale?” Parker says now. “My mind was blown. In the restaurant industry, you have amazing chefs who cook amazing meals, but doing it at that volume is a whole other ballgame.”
Stapaki, who was impressed by Chicago’s culinary reputation, agreed to come work for Parker and help him build a restaurant that they both describe as a modern, fine-dining take on traditional Mediterranean cuisine. But it took several years before she was able to source ingredients to her satisfaction. That didn’t include just the fish that forms the backbone of Nisos’s menu, but also grains, herbs, olive oil, cheeses, bottarga, and honey. Stapaki estimates that she’s been able to import 60 percent of her ingredients, including shipments of fresh fish from Greece two or three times a week.
She’s especially proud of her scorpion fish, sea bass, and grouper, some of which have rarely been seen in the United States. “The Mediterranean is the most salty sea in the world,” she says. “So the fish on its own is very tasty without adding salts or oils. What we bring in today from Greece is very rare also in my country. My importer got all the fish only for us. Even Greeks cannot get it.”
To complement the freshness of its fish, the entire restaurant has been designed to make customers feel like they’ve walked through a door in the West Loop and somehow ended up on a Greek island; the name “Nisos,” in fact, means “island” in Greek. Diners can choose from a list of options on the daily “fish display” and then specify how they’d like it prepared, just like they might in a taverna supplied by local fishermen.
Stapaki recruited a friend, Spiros Anagnostou of the Athens cocktail bar 7 Jokers to design the bar menu. Each of the cocktails is named after an incident in Homer’s Odyssey, another epic journey around the Mediterranean.
The space, which was formerly occupied by Bad Hunter, Heisler Hospitality’s veggie-focused restaurant that closed for good in 2020, is not as large as Principote: the main dining room and bar seat a mere 170 people (a private dining room can fit another 40). It’s been constructed with similar stones and plaster used in Greece, and, fitting with the island theme, all the tables are circular, like little islands.
Nisos will not be an island unto itself for very long, though: Parker and Stapaki are already planning a second and third location.
But although she’s now installed in the kitchen of a big city restaurant far from home, cooking is still a very personal endeavor for Stapaki. Her mother, Paraskevi, died during the COVID-19 pandemic and Stapaki couldn’t travel back to Greece to see her. “This restaurant is for her,” she says. “This opening was about her.”