One Saturday last quarter, my roommate and I got brunch at Salonica, the Greek diner a short walk from our apartment. This would be an unremarkable occurrence but for the fact that we had eaten lunch there the day before. And dinner. This “golden trifecta” was a consummation of our love for Salonica, which is so boundless that we didn’t realize we had eaten three meals in a row there until halfway through brunch.
I’m normally a harsh critic. Just read any of my bitingly witty tweets, which tear through the cultural landscape, shaking the very foundations of the world of social media (follow me @Horse_ebooks). The depths of my passion for Salonica surprised me: Why did I love it so? I decided to investigate.
Something that always fascinated me about Salonica was its sign advertising pizza from the shuttered Café Florian. I never saw anyone eating pizza inside, and there was no mention of it on the menu. But every time I walked past Salonica the sign called to me, teasing me, inviting me to bring some friends and some beer—yes, Virginia, Salonica is BYO, and many a dapper couple have shared spanakopita over a bottle of Treasure Island’s finest, cheapest white wine—and purchase two pies.
One Friday night, I stepped up to the challenge. I asked my waitress about the pizza-ordering process and she didn’t miss a beat. “Oh,” she asked me, pulling something out of her back pocket, “do you want to see the pizza menu?” Yes. I did want to see the pizza menu.
Inside the Salonica men’s restroom, there’s a corkboard strategically placed on the wall so that one can read the comics that have been pinned onto it while standing in front of the toilet. I always try to have a few too many cups of water during my meal, so that I can stand for just a little bit longer, drinking in the day’s “Garfield” and “Beetle Bailey”. Sometimes I challenge myself and try to solve the jumble, or figure out what the joke is in “Ziggy”.
Salonica is full of such surprises—quirks that remind you there are human minds and hearts behind the restaurant’s majesty. Before 11 o’clock on weekday mornings, one can order from a special menu, which features otherwise unadvertised options, like the Tony Soprano omelette (whack!) and Chef Claudio’s Special. Your server will be sure to warn you that Chef Claudio likes it hot, and that his special might be too spicy. Push ahead, young warrior, for you shall be rewarded for your pain.
They normally have a flowing supply of horchata and strawberry lemonade, but, once, the horchata had been replaced with a yellow drink labeled “Pineapple.” Intrigued, I asked for pineapple juice, only to be informed, “No, that’s pineapple water.” I’m still not sure exactly what pineapple water is, but it was delicious, and certainly not pineapple juice. One time, they played Beach House over the sound system.
Salonica also provides the personal touch and community connection that can be hard to find in our pedal-to-the-metal era of emoji and robot libraries. The staff members are universally charming and seem devoted to their patrons and employer. They’ll remember your name or just call you “friend,” they’ll smile as they bring you more saltines for your chili, and they’ll let you sit at the counter and cry when you hear the new Justin Timberlake song and realize there will never be another FutureSex/LoveSounds.
Pictures of old Hyde Park homes also hang on the walls of that same men’s restroom. Along with the clientele—a mixture of long-term Hyde Parkers, good-looking fourth-year sociology and Spanish majors, and that one crazy guy you see walking around sometimes—they remind patrons of this neighborhood’s historic beauty and complexity. At Salonica, one is welcomed into a community that can sometimes seem outside the grasp of UChicago students. The University’s presentation of Hyde Park as a residential refuge from the nation’s third-largest city suddenly rings true.
Sure, the food is delicious. Try any of the day’s soup selections, the baklava, or the moussaka, the French toast or the lunch special tortas that make this the best Mexican food in Hyde Park (unless you’re really drunk, in which case, yeah, it’s Maravillas). But my love for Salonica goes beyond the food. As the University erects soulless glass and steel structures around Hyde Park and plasters donors’ names onto beautiful old libraries, it can sometimes feel like our great institution is becoming a well-oiled Metcalf machine. Salonica offers a respite—a home with a human touch. So, you can have Five Guys and Clarke’s, Qdoba, and the corporatized Classics Café. I’ll be at Salonica, with a friend in my booth, bread in my basket, and joy in my heart.
Dan Reis is a fourth-year in the College majoring in sociology and Spanish.