Back after Thanksgiving while we were still partying with our friends and families over the long weekend, we were on holiday hiatus and missed something. Mind you, it wasn’t at all well publicized; in fact, it happened in the background, under the radar.
Yesterday, I ran across the news while searching online for something else: Heleen Thanas, doyenne of the famous Lou Mitchell’s Restaurant in Chicago, had died on Halloween last year of complications following a catastrophic stroke. There hadn’t been a death notice under that name in the local papers, only a Chicago Tribune obituary in late November for a Heleen Thanasouras-Gillman, nearly a month after the private funeral.
Thanasouras-Gillman … That might be the reason I wasn’t the only one who missed it.
Heleen Thanas was her work name. Even though Thanas is the surname her mother, Kathryn, and brother Nick use at the restaurant – the one on the deed and other legal documents – Thanasouras-Gillman was the name by which Heleen’s immediate family and close friends knew her. She was proud of her heritage and her accomplishments.
The face of Lou Mitchell’s for 23 years
I didn’t know Heleen Thanas, but I knew of her. No true student of Chicago history or of Route 66 could do otherwise. Over the course of 23 years of running the restaurant, she had become as synonymous with Lou Mitchell’s as the man for whom it was named. She was present in every atom of that eatery on Jackson Boulevard, there even when she wasn’t there. She was in every detail that was just right, having trained to her exacting standards the employees who were like a second family.
“Heleen took everyone under her wing and made them the best at whatever part they played in the restaurant or her life,” Karen Greco said of her friend. “She was thoughtful and caring and nurturing, wanting everyone to be a shining star. She was amazing at bringing out the best in people. She would work right beside her staff.”
And because Heleen was a good storyteller, she herself became a little bit larger than life at the restaurant. “People would go there to see her. She was a female Zorba the Greek,” long-time friend Stacey Toscas told the Tribune. “The restaurant was Heleen’s life, and she was a fixture there.”
The first time I glimpsed her was a few decades ago at Lou Mitchell’s, but I hadn’t figured out yet who she was. By the time she appeared on the 2008 Chicago season of Top Chef on the Bravo cable channel (season 4, episode 11), that had certainly changed. I had changed; I was already thinking about Route 66, though writing a book hadn’t yet occurred to me. To me, Ms. Thanas was one more person who was emblematic of the city’s history, yet, like many Chicago natives, very warm, no-nonsense and down to earth. It gave me such a kick to see her there on the small screen – quite appropriately, judging the breakfast challenge – like an inside joke that only Chicagoans and a few Route 66 roadies would get.
Lou Mitchell’s, which is only open for breakfast and lunch, epitomizes the typical Chicago-style breakfast spot. Breakfast and brunch are a big deal in Chicago, more so than in other cities, and there are lots of breakfast and brunch places in the metro area. Ask the locals; they may not be able to describe a Chicago-style breakfast in detail, but they will tell you it’s hearty meal – no foodie trends or ‘spa’ items, just good old-fashioned diner food that gets you through the day. It’s what makes Chicagoans happy.
Former Chicagoan Michael Stern, who with his wife Jane dissects road food in print, on blogs, and on National Public Radio, was asked in a 2008 Tribune interview about Chicago’s position as a big breakfast town. “Breakfast capital? Chicago? I don’t know, but it’s definitely in the top tier. There’s no breakfast culture in New York or Los Angeles,” he said, adding, “Breakfast is hard to make pretentious. You don’t worry about what wine goes with your breakfast. New York has a lot of breakfast places but manages to make every one [insufferable]. Chicago has its share of overreachers, of course. But Chicago has an honesty to it, and in that sense, it lends itself to being a great breakfast town.”
That same article quoted Heleen Thanas. “I think breakfast here means not frou-frou, but bacon and eggs and sausage – what people actually want, not toasted goat cheeses and endives in the morning. Even as a kid, I think I was predisposed to a certain morning food – I’m not going to eat oysters for breakfast, know what I mean?” That kind of solid breakfast, comforting and tasty, is what Lou Mitchell’s has provided for 93 years. No doubt that familiarity with her customers’ tastes informed Ms. Thanas’s analysis on Top Chef.
This North Sider started early in the business
She was born Heleen Thanasouras in Chicago – a Baby Boomer at a time when Lou Mitchell’s was still run by founder William Mitchell and his son, and Route 66 was a quarter-century old. Heleen grew up on the Northwest Side during the 1950s and ’60s, graduated from the long-defunct Evanston Marywood High School during the Vietnam War, and attended the National College of Education (now National Louis University) for several years during the Nixon Administration, intending to be a teacher.
But that wasn’t what happened. Her Greek-American family, like the senior Mr. Mitchell’s own, was in the restaurant business; while still a teen, Heleen had already begun waiting tables at eateries such as the now closed Atrium Restaurant in Rolling Meadows. Later, she moved to the Rosebud Italian restaurant on Taylor Street in Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood, eventually becoming the manager. It would prove good training for her future responsibilities.
The elder Mitchell had opened his diner across the street from its current location in 1923, a year before Chicago’s Union Station opened and three years before Route 66 officially came into being. Shortly thereafter, he named it after his then 14-year-old son, Louis W. Mitchell. Lou and his siblings Polly and Demi soon joined the restaurant’s staff. The restaurant – which profited handsomely from all the hungry travelers and commuters coming in and out of the station – moved to the newly built 565 W. Jackson Blvd. building in 1949. By then, Lou was in charge.
When the octogenarian Uncle Lou wanted to retire in 1992 and had no children who could take over the business, he had to sell (Mitchell died in 1999 at the age of 90). But Kathryn Thanas was Lou’s niece, thus family; Heleen’s grandfather had come to America on the same boat as William Mitchell. To the Thanases, buying Uncle Lou’s restaurant seemed like the natural thing to do. That was when Heleen became a co-owner.
While the Thanas family continued the traditions and menu established by the Mitchells, Heleen became the public face of the business. Her job was to oversee operations and manage employees – a task for which she turned out to be well suited. Exchanging witty conversation with customers and making them feel well cared for was the frosting on the cake.
“Heleen learned it all … they had quite a large staff at Lou Mitchell’s, and Heleen could run the whole show. She loved the restaurant business itself but also enjoyed working with employees,” remarked her third husband and widower, Lloyd Gillman. “She loved being able to take some wayward waitresses with whatever life troubles they had, and Heleen could offer them the opportunity of having a home and a family and making an excellent living. And because Lou Mitchell’s closes at 3 o’clock, a single mother working there could go to work early and be home for [her] kids when they got home from school.”
By the time the Thanas family took over, Lou Mitchell’s had a well-established reputation as a premier breakfast spot in Chicago, famous for its unique double-yolk eggs; fluffy, oversized pancakes and omelets; fresh sweet rolls and other bakery goods, all baked on the premises; the tasty doughnut holes and Milk Duds candies handed out to waiting customers; and a fine cup of coffee. It was just as well known for its flowing, eye-catching, 1930s-style neon sign, as easily recognized in the city as the neon-and-incandescent marquees of the Chicago Theatre and The Berghoff Restaurant and Café (another Route 66 mainstay but one located on the Adams Street alignment, which didn’t officially become part of the route until 1955).
Moreover, Lou Mitchell’s had by then become the traditional place from which to start a road trip down Route 66 with a hearty breakfast. It still is, to the delight of many a traveler. Today, the building is on the National Register of Historic Places and the restaurant has been inducted into the Route 66 Hall of Fame, along with other landmark Route 66 eateries such as Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket in Willowbrook, IL.
A hard-working boss and mentor with a generous nature
Over the years, many of the restaurant’s workers were new arrivals in the U.S., and not all had restaurant training. To the new immigrants as well as to long-standing employees, Ms. Thanas provided opportunities to get ahead while helping them learn new skills. “She truly loved being with people, and she lived for her people, and the people’s lives she was able to help – the employees [who] started working there when her family took it over,” her husband said.
In time, employees became family, customers became friends. In a 2012 video interview with the Illinois Route 66 Heritage Project, Ms. Thanas reflected on how she got involved in the lives of her customers and employees and how they affected hers. “You get to share in everybody’s joy, and unfortunately, sometimes you share in their sadness as well; but that’s the whole deal, isn’t it? And we want to take the whole ride.”
Her concern, empathy and compassion often extended beyond her business and her family. Rare was the occasion when she hesitated to offer a free meal to someone in need or otherwise try to help the less fortunate. “Heleen would take clothing in the wintertime and literally drive … around Chicago [to] look for homeless people to give them clothes,” Gillman remembered.
She also never forgot her own experience as a waitress, and it influenced her management style. Her husband noted that among her prized keepsakes were an old server’s apron and a check cover, both of which she kept “in pristine condition.”
Ms. Thanas stayed busy for most of her adult life. Although she took occasional trips with her husband to vacation spots such as Greece, Morocco, Russia and Italy, Gillman recalls that she was typically most comfortable at Lou Mitchell’s, working and greeting customers. As if that weren’t enough, she also co-owned a Häagen-Dazs ice cream shop in northwest suburban Rosemont, not far from O’Hare International Airport.
With its long hours and demanding focus, however, the restaurant business can be tough on relationships – especially if your spouse isn’t involved in the same enterprise. Heleen Thanasouras had two failed marriages behind her when she wed Lloyd Gillman and suddenly acquired two stepchildren. Still, she managed to provide them not only affection but a strong work ethic. “She was an incredibly hard worker, and she taught me the importance of hard work and discipline,” said stepson Adam Gillman.
Heleen Thanasouras-Gillman did the work she loved, but she didn’t live long enough to enjoy the retirement she deserved. A longtime resident of Lake Point Tower, she died at age 63 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. The restaurant continues to be owned and operated by her mother, Kathryn, and brother Nicholas, who is now the manager. In addition to them, her husband, and her stepson, she is survived by her brother Dean and his family and by stepdaughter Vanessa Gillman.
Your Route 66 correspondent,