Flaming cheese caught on in the mid-century Windy City.
I guarantee you’ve seen it on a menu: “Flaming saganaki,” that savory and dramatic combination of fried kasseri cheese and ignited brandy vapor. It’s a staple at Greek restaurants—but it’s not Greek. It’s a product of Chicago, and it’s made its way all across the country.
You’ll find Americanized dishes across nearly every type of “ethnic” restaurant in the U.S., from fortune cookies at a Chinese spot to avocado-filled hand rolls at a sushi joint to marinara sauce at your local Italian hangout. These dishes are the product of assimilating immigrants and the combination of flavors from the homeland with American tastes and trends. Such is the case with flaming saganaki, a staple of Greek menus from New York to Los Angeles, from Dallas to Minneapolis. The flames, the smell, the accompanying cries of “Opa!”—all were invented in Chicago in the late 1960s.
While Greeks have lived in Chicago since the 19th century, modern Greektown is a product of the expansion of the Eisenhower Expressway in the 1960s. The project forced some of the existing businesses (and most of the actual Greek residents) out of the area, but made some commercial areas more accessible and created others. The restaurant scene almost immediately started booming, with spots selling gyros, dolmades, and moussaka sprouting up and down Halsted Street. Lines formed outside of places like The Parthenon, which opened in 1968. Greek food, put simply, was trendy.
At the same time that Greektown was on the rise, another huge trend was in full swing: flaming food. To transition away from the bland days of 1950s jell-o molds, chefs started setting everything they could on fire. There was even an entire recipe collection, fittingly named The Pyromaniac’s Cookbook, devoted solely to fiery food.
The Chicago of the 1960s was one of the prime spots for flaming cuisine, with the famous see-and-be-seen Pump Room at the burning epicenter. The Pump Room flamed crabs, guinea hens, oysters, crepes; even coffee was set ablaze in that (terrifyingly wood-paneled) dining room. According to the book Fashionable Food, the Pump Room’s owner, Ernest Byfield, once said, “We serve almost anything flambé in that room. It doesn’t hurt the food much.”
So it’s not surprising that in 1968, two of the most exciting trends in Chicago dining collided head on.
Tons of variations on fried cheese can be found all over the Mediterranean, but as far as I can tell, no one really set it aflame until one fateful day at The Parthenon. Owner Chris Liakouras told the Chicago Tribune in 2014 that he got the idea for the dish from a group of Greek women guests who suggested adding a little flambé flair to a plate of cheese. Whether this story is literally true and The Parthenon “invented” flaming saganaki is almost beside the point; the idea spread far and wide. At The Parthenon, the dish became a signature, and waiters could be seen carrying sizzling plates five or six at a time, all of which would be set on fire simultaneously with a pyrotechnic boom sure to draw looks from all sides of the dining room. This, of course, led to more ordering and more flames in a chain reaction of incinerated dairy products that ran through the night. I have never visited a Greek restaurant without ordering it, and the theatricality of the dish always fit perfectly with the “every night is a party” atmosphere that pervades most restaurants in Chicago’s Greektown.
Sadly, The Parthenon closed earlier this year after nearly a half-century run. I’m not sure what happened to their collection of flaming saganaki memorabilia (including one scary photo of Liakouras catching his hair on fire). But the legacy lives on, as practically every Greek restaurant in America serves this savory masterpiece. Next time you take a bite of that warm cheese and are tempted to long for the gorgeous islands of Greece, turn your mind to the glamorous dining rooms of 1960s Chicago instead.
Did we leave off your favorite saganaki spot? Tell us in the comments.