By Ben Joravsky
For 22 years My Place For? stood on Clark near Howard, drawing diners to a forgotten corner of Rogers Park. Then one day last summer it disappeared.
The building remained, but there was a new name–Gateway Bar & Grill–over the restaurant. And the neighborhood naysayers shook their heads over the latest blow to a community already teetering on the brink. If a fixture like My Place For? couldn’t make it, Rogers Park didn’t stand a chance.
In what might have been the biggest marketing blunder since Coke revised its flavor to taste more like Pepsi, the restaurant’s owner, Steve Dorizas, had changed the name. Now he’s changing it back. “I thought a name change would bring in new customers–boy, was I wrong,” he says.
To Dorizas, Rogers Park symbolizes opportunity. Born on Cephalonia, a Greek island, he sailed to Virginia in 1959 on a merchant marine ship. “I figured this is America, land of opportunity–I want to stay,” says Dorizas. “I didn’t want a life at sea–it was too hard. I decided to make a new life. I was 17 years old, spoke little English, and had $55 in my pocket. I had an uncle in Chicago. So I took a bus to Chicago, and I’ve been here ever since.”
He moved to a rooming house in Greektown and went to work as a busboy. Within a few years he had worked his way up to headwaiter in a busy Loop restaurant. By the end of the 1960s he and his younger brothers, Dennis and John, had saved enough money to open a restaurant at 5062 N. Lincoln. “We called it My Place For? because we thought it was catchy,” says Dorizas. “We weren’t a Greek restaurant so much as a fish restaurant with a Greek flavor.”
By 1976 they had outgrown their old establishment and opened at a new location, 7545 N. Clark. “Even then people said, ‘You’re crazy. Why you going to Rogers Park? It’s a jungle,'” says Dorizas. “But I didn’t see it that way. I thought it was a colorful neighborhood with a lot of potential. In those days there wasn’t a restaurant that would serve you a plate of fresh fish between here and Kenosha. I told my brothers, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll bring in customers from all over the North Shore.'”
His prediction proved to be on target. In time, My Place For? became a neighborhood institution–its name, splashed in bold letters on the side of the building, a familiar presence to drivers heading north along Clark Street. Within a few years word of the red snapper and calamari spread along the north side and the North Shore.
“We were selling 1,000 pounds of red snapper a week,” says Dorizas. “We had lines winding around the bar almost every night. You had to wait over an hour. On Mother’s Day, forget it. If you didn’t have a reservation there was no point in showing up.”
Few restaurateurs had such close ties to their clientele. Steve and Dennis (John moved back to Greece in the early 80s) greeted customers at the door with panache. They knew their names and occupations; a dentist was greeted as “doctor,” a PhD as “professor.” With a great flourish they ushered regulars to favorite tables, allowing them to think they were being moved to the head of a long line.
Over the last few years, however, business declined for reasons beyond the Dorizases’ control. Their most loyal patrons were aging. Many retired and moved from the area; others died. Many began to find it inconvenient to come all the way to Rogers Park. “When we opened we had our customers from Highland Park, Northbrook, Winnetka,” says Steve Dorizas. “Now there are many restaurants in those towns. They think, ‘Do I want to drive all the way to Chicago for a dinner, or do I just want to stay at home?'”
And there was the fear. “The press Rogers Park gets is horrible,” says Dorizas. “I tell everyone–Rogers Park is still a great neighborhood. But they read in the paper about some crime or accident, and it scares people away.”
The once bustling commercial strip around the corner on Howard Street turned dingy and dark as other operations–the bowling alley, the insurance company, the liquor store–went out of business and were boarded up. One, two, three development deals that were supposed to rejuvenate the area foundered for lack of support.
By the mid-1990s hard times had hit My Place For? It was almost depressing to eat there–there’s no sadder sight than a brightly lit dining room that’s virtually empty.
For Steve Dorizas, the downturn was aggravated when his brother Dennis died of a heart attack last summer. “It was very sad for me,” he says. “We argued a lot over business–Dennis didn’t want to stay. But I know we loved each other. All of a sudden he’s gone. I still haven’t got over it.”
At about that time a developer named Rudy Mulder came to Dorizas with yet another development scheme. Backed by the city’s power of eminent domain, Mulder and a local community group were going to clear most of the buildings from the area and construct a shopping center anchored by a Dominick’s and a multiscreen movie theater. “They made me an offer, and I said I’m not ready to move,” says Dorizas. “Everyone thought I was crazy. Even Dennis didn’t want to stay. People said the neighborhood had gone too far. But I never felt that way. I figured this is always the land of opportunity. It will come back.”
So Dorizas and Mulder struck a deal. My Place For? will be the only existing business to move into the mall, which should begin operating early next year. “We needed a restaurant as an anchor,” says 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore. “My Place For? was perfect because it’s so well-known. Steve’s been very loyal to Rogers Park. He stuck it out through some rough years. Now I hope he benefits from a resurgence.”
To celebrate the deal, Dorizas decided to give his establishment a new identity. The old bar was redesigned, decorated with a mural featuring such prominent Chicagoans as blues singer Koko Taylor and artist Ed Paschke, and converted into a nightclub. “We want to be like Schubas or Fitzgerald’s,” says Paula Downs, who books the bands for Dorizas. “We don’t want one kind of music, just the best of different genres, be it blues, country, swing, jazz, or rock.”
With the change in the lounge, Dorizas decided to change the place’s name. He repainted the famous wall sign to read Gateway. “I thought I’d tie my identity to the new shopping mall,” he says. But it was a huge mistake. The mall, months from completion, has no identity. He wound up with the worst of two worlds: fewer new customers and fewer old ones.
“I drove by, saw the new name, and thought they went out of business,” says Les Ornstein, a local artist. “I never went to the new place.”
If there was any upside it was that the name change became the talk of Rogers Park. “It’s his business, he should call it whatever he wants, but it caused a lot of confusion,” says Moore. “A lot of residents said to me, ‘I thought you told us My Place For? is staying.'”
Other critics were more direct. “Personally, I thought it was a terrible move,” says a publicist who’s trying to promote the Gateway project. “To throw away 25 years of name recognition is insane.”
Within a few months Dorizas knew he had made a mistake: “People come in to eat, they’d see me and look surprised. ‘I thought you left.'”
So a few months ago he brought the name back, at least partly. The lounge is called the Gateway and the restaurant’s My Place For? But that change might not be good enough. “I think I’m going to repaint the wall–put up My Place For? in big letters for everyone to see.”
In the meantime, old customers are rallying to bring back business. Ed Paschke, who has a studio on Howard Street, will stop by at seven on March 11 to sign his likeness on the mural. There will be dancing and free wine.
In general, business has picked up, particularly in the lounge. “On Wednesday night we’ve been packing the place for our swing bands,” says Downs. “That’s a total scene, people dressed in 40s-style suits. And we pack it for blues.”
It may now have the most eclectic draw in the city. Last Saturday’s blues night, for instance, brought in a young tattooed crowd as well as some of the older bunch looking for the red snapper. “I see the old customers and the new customers and I get excited–where else but Rogers Park could they come together?” says Dorizas. “We’re giving it our best shot. I think I can stay another 20 years. I’m telling the world–don’t give up on Rogers Park.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Steve Drozas photo by Rpbert Drea.