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A North Center Greasy Spoon Finds New Life

Irene’s is a diner that takes quality ingredients seriously

Coming attractions stock art
Irene’s is coming soon to North Center.
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

Petros Papatheofanis remembers the childhood memories of growing up at his parents’ North Center diner. He’d steal bacon off the griddle, watch hosts ask diners if they wanted to sit in a smoking or a non-smoking section, and hang out. In college, Papatheofanis worked at Alps East while his mother, Irene, and father, Dimitrios, ran the greasy spoon.

“I was pretty sure the line cooks were even smoking back then,” Papatheofanis says.

Alps East opened in 1986 near the Papatheofanis family home by Irving Park Road and Damen Avenue. It would close in 2012, 12 years after Dimitrios Papatheofanis’ death. Petros Papatheofanis’ time at Alps shaped him. He would studt to be a dietitian and go on in 2017 to open a West Loop restaurant and wine bar. Papatheofanis is a partner at Press Room, along with Cristian Mendoza, and chef Noah Zamler.

The Press Room is a cozy basement space, an independent restaurant with a fun wine list and tasty food that contrasts the histrionic West Loop dining scene where greasy spoon diners — even ones from Top Chef champions — are endangered species.

Diner culture has changed; labor woes won’t allow for many 24-hour and full-service restaurants to function without the proper staffing. Likewise, diners don’t have the same appeal for folks to gather. People now have the Internet to socialize online. But the Press Room team recently had a chance to take over the Alps East space which was most recently vacated by Danny’s Egghead Diner. Papatheofanis consulted with his mother, and surprised her when he told her the name of the diner: “She wouldn’t believe Petros,” says Mendoza.

Irene’s should open for breakfast and lunch sometime in October at 2012 W. Irving Park Road. Papatheofanis doesn’t want to overcomplicate the menu. But the food will be fresh and not out of a box. Zamler says carrot cake and cookies & cream pancakes, “won’t be something you dump syrup on.” Look for meats for Slagel Family Farm and vegetables from Nichols Farms. They’ll use Kensington ketchup instead of Heinz. The soft drinks will be from Jones Soda Co. and they’ll serve Passion House Coffee. A juice program will include immunity shots and other health-minded concoctions. Also, look for a large selection of salads.

“I think we’re still going to be a diner,” Papatheofanis says. “The difference just comes from the approach and quality. The feel will be a place that fits neighborhood families. We want to be a neighborhood staple.”

Zamler is intent on making all the sauces, and will even add some gourmet touches like seasoning his own turkey sausage using Slagel meat. They’ll bake sourdough on the premises. Other dishes include a short-rib grilled cheese and a fried chicken sandwich. A kid’s menu is also planned.

A big part of the diner experience for Papatheofanis is pie, and there will be one of those old-school display cases. They’re still working on finding a local piemaker to fill the case with treats like French silk.

The interiors will stay true to the spirit of the old diner with subway tiled flooring, a counter, big booths, and Borden milk cans. There are 25 tables.

A second restaurant, once known as Alps West, is about 10 minutes west of where Irene’s stands. Dimitrios Papatheofanis worked at the Original Alps Pancake House before opening his own restaurant. Petros Papatheofanis already had named his son after his father, which paved the way for honoring his mother with the new restaurant.

Look for more details in the coming weeks.

Irene’s, 2012 W. Irving Park Road, scheduled for an October opening.