Opa! Greek Restaurant Owner Gus Dagres reflects on the Guide to Greek Cuisine
Writer / Heather Chastain
Photographer / Kyle Duell
The first time I met Gus Dagres, I was a customer at Opa. The restaurant had been open about a week, and our food had just been served. He came over to see if my family and I were happy with our dishes.
I was examining my food as I tend to do because I’m a picky eater, and I was trying something well out of my comfort zone when Gus decided my food was not prepared to his standards. He took it away and brought me a new, better-prepared dish. He couldn’t have been more apologetic. It was in that moment I knew Opa would be a huge success and a place I would be patronizing regularly.
Open nearly two years now, it seems as if I’m not wrong.
I had the opportunity to sit down in his authentic restaurant recently to talk about what’s made Opa such a success.
Gus says customers are flocking to his restaurant not only because of the food, but because of the atmosphere. “Inside, it’s like our customers are going on a little vacation,” the soft-spoken restaurant owner said smiling. “We worked very hard on the outside and the inside. We wanted people to feel like they were having an authentic Greek experience with the food and the music and the murals on the wall,” said Gus.
Even the name Opa extends to his Greek heritage and feelings about the restaurant. Opa is a Greek word used to express happy emotion. It’s often used during a wedding or when people are dancing. Often a plate smashing accompanies the gleeful “Opa!” It can also be used to call for attention, an invitation to join in a circle dance or a cry as the flame is lit on the saganaki, a melted cheese dish that is traditionally flambéd at the table by the waiter.
He said many customers have shared how much they enjoyed the Greek experience. “Recently we had a table of 12. They stayed three to three-and-a-half hours. They enjoyed good food, good company, Greek music … but then they walked outside and said, ‘Oh yeah, I’m still in Avon.’ Those kinds of stories make me really proud of what I’ve done,” said Gus.
A man not just providing a memorable dining experience, he’s also responsible for the construction of the restaurant. “I do both. It’s a lot, but I’m getting so many rewards from the customers. To see how much they like it and how many are coming back, it means a lot,” said Gus.
Gus is a Greek immigrant from Argos, Greece, a small city in Argolis, Peloponnese, Greece, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Gus came to the United States when he was 18 years old. His entire family came as well. His parents stayed a few years and then returned to Greece.
Gus opened several establishments in Chicago, including a nightclub, a few gyro places and a couple of restaurants. After his separation from his wife, he moved to Avon. “I like it here. It’s clean, not too much traffic, quiet and close to everything,” Gus said smiling.
“When I first moved to Avon 10 years ago, I wanted to do something a little easier. Something that wouldn’t be open many hours,” Gus said about his decision to open Hotcakes Emporium and Pancake House in Avon, Southport and at 86th and Ditch.
At first, the restaurants closing at 3 p.m. seemed like a great working environment for Gus, but he quickly realized he was bored and needed something more. “I always wanted to do something more, something close to my house, something different,” said Gus.
So he decided to open an authentic restaurant with ties to his heritage. The recipes prepared are from his grandmother and mother. “She is so proud because I found people who know how to eat! I go home once a year, and when I do, my mother is always giving me different recipes,” Gus said chuckling softly. Even though his grandmother is no longer alive, he knows she would be as proud as his mother.
“I opened this place, so I could enjoy it. I wanted to move people. This place is always on my mind. And my mind is on quality. We only use clean cooking, fresh herbs and fresh olive oil. We prepare everything here,” said Gus.
The owner takes a great deal of responsibility in the food prepared. “I believe whatever you eat is going into your blood. I would never serve something I didn’t want to eat,” Gus said firmly. “It’s a lot of hours, but what I do is worth it. I love it. It’s not easy doing what I do and to keep things running the way I do, but it’s worth it.”
Many customers are requesting that Gus open more locations. He says he is considering opening additional Opa restaurants on the north and south sides, but nothing is official. He was quite coy with his expansion plans. “I don’t want to say too much. I don’t want to read that I’ve said something and then realize I said too much. I need to check in with myself, and then we’ll see,” said Gus.
For Gus, his eating philosophy is simple: “Eat healthy. Eat Greek. Live longer!”