After 34 years, Denise and Argyrios Arambadjis are ready to retire. Nicholas Karos is taking over the restaurant under the same business plan, according to a city report.
Denise said they opened It’s Greek To Me in 1982 with more than $20,000 in seed money from friends, and said Argyrios drew up plans in pencil and brought them Downtown for city approval.
“We did almost everything ourselves,” she said.
She said the location at Lake & Lyndale was seen as risky in the early 80s. Call girl services operated on upper floors across the street, she said, and “porn king” Ferris Alexander ran bookstores and video stores along Lake Street. But this didn’t faze the couple.
“We’re from Chicago. We felt okay,” she said.
Argyrios grew up in Thessaloniki in Greece, and moved to the U.S. as a student in 1969. Denise and Argyrios met while working at a DeKalb, Ill. Restaurant — also called It’s Greek To Me. (They reused the name with permission.)
They opened their own restaurant with Argyrios’ brother Alkis, and Alkis’ former wife. Argyrios’ sister Soula Papilidou prepared food at the restaurant in the mid-80s, joining as co-owner from 1996-2011 before retiring to Greece.
The couple started with 10 tables and lived upstairs in a corner apartment. Within two years, they were able to take over a neighboring bar to double in size. They bought the building in 1986, undertook a huge remodel 20 years ago, and installed the popular patio 12 years ago.
They found a niche as a destination spot for authentic Greek food — “not just your typical gyro,” Denise said. Argyrios became known for innovative Northern Greek regional dishes, and she said people visit for the lamb, the healthier Mediterranean diet, and the Saganaki: Kasseri cheese served flaming at the table.
Many of the staff members, particularly the kitchen crew, have worked at the restaurant more than 20 years. They’ve hired the children of former staffers, and others who visited the restaurant in utero. Prince came the first year it opened, ordering a gyro omelet with ketchup. The owners recently attended the funeral of a longtime employee that was packed with 200 people, many of them customers.
Denise said she’d like to think the restaurant helped anchor the neighborhood’s transition from empty storefronts to the busy present-day district.
“When we first opened we couldn’t get a French loaf of bread,” Denise said. “We couldn’t get a whole fish. The food scene has changed so much, it’s amazing. And it’s all for the good.”