Chicago has lots of steakhouses, but Kinzie Chophouse is perhaps the only one that’s been woman-owned for 32 years.
Longtime owner Susan Frasca built Frasca Hospitality Group, Chicago’s largest female-owned restaurant group, in the 1990s. 30 years later, as Frasca prepared to retire, she sold it in 2019 to Nicole Flevaris and her husband Andreas Tsakonas, a Greek restaurateur with decades of experience operating restaurants and nightclubs such as hot spot Nafplio.
Resy: How did you come to buy Kinzie Chophouse from previous owner Susan Frasca?
Nicole Flevaris: I’ve known Susan since around 2012 and first met her when she was my client for eyelash extensions at my Gold Coast salon, Salon Lashe. She has the same birthday as I do, and we became good friends.
I have an MBA in finance, and I worked for my godmother importing granite and marble to put myself through college. Then, I did commercial lending, moved to Milan, and when I moved back to Chicago, I got eyelash extensions done and they all ripped off immediately. This was around 2007. I formulated a better eyelash adhesive when the market was still very new and in 2010, I opened my salon on Oak Street.
Seven years ago I got married, and my husband had some of the best seafood restaurants in Greece. We were going to open a savory bakery in Chicago, so I asked Susan for advice and she told me that she had a better idea – that we should buy Kinzie Chophouse from her. Andreas worked as a manager for Susan before we took over so he could learn the ropes.
I asked Susan for advice and she told me that she had a better idea – that we should buy Kinzie Chophouse from her.— Nicole Flevaris
What was your first order of business after purchasing Kinzie Chophouse?
We purchased the restaurant on July 3, 2019 and were slowly redoing the menu to put our Greek twist on things. I told Susan that we were going to put our spin on it and she said absolutely, it needs a shot in the arm. She wanted to make sure that she passed her legacy to somebody who would take care of the clients like she did and offer them something unique. In January of 2020, we closed for two weeks to flip the entire restaurant with a big renovation. We gutted it, took it to the studs, and reopened just before Covid hit.
What was it like to be a first-time restaurant owner during the pandemic?
I’ve been baptized by fire in the restaurant industry. We were so excited for Valentine’s Day and the NBA All-Star weekend, but then Covid hit. We went through two riots, and city rules that were changing on a Thursday night at 8 p.m. with the books full for the weekend. It was nuts. Slowly, slowly, things got better and we were able to really start doing different things on our menu. We survived, even amidst a tough labor market, because I didn’t treat my staff as if they were disposable. So many people have been with us for 15, 20, even 30-plus years.
What have you learned as a salon owner that you can apply to being a restaurant owner at Kinzie Chophouse?
Customer service. Treating the customer like family and letting them know that I have their best interest at heart. People know when you’re lying, so just be genuine and care. When you love what you do, it shows and people trust you. They know that you will never do them wrong. Ultimately that’s the story of any business.
You’ve added some Greek touches to the menu to reflect your heritage. What are some of your favorite examples of Greek-inspired dishes that diners need to try?
We have this wonderful olive-fed Wagyu steak that we source from Meats by Linz. Nothing goes to waste in a Greek village, so when you press the olive oil, whatever is leftover is turned into animal feed because it’s so rich in polyphenols and good for the animals. The cattle are raised in Texas and what’s wild is that those olives are imported from just outside of Nafplio. The meat is so sweet, it’s like nothing you’ve had. We sell it as a ribeye portion or a filet by the ounce. Whenever anyone orders it, they’re blown away. It’s so beautiful.
My father’s village – Achladokampos – has a co-op and all of the olive oil we use in the restaurant is from my dad’s village. A lot of it is from my dad’s trees. We also have whole sea bass from the Ionian Sea. We weren’t afraid to put a whole fish on the menu, because you get more flavor out of it. We didn’t know what kind of response we were going to get, but people love it. Our lobster bisque is done more like a Greek fish stew, with deep seafood flavor and not all of this heavy cream.
Tell us about the loyalty program. Is that something new that you implemented?
That just started at the end of July and that’s going really well because a lot of locals love us and it’s one of the ways that we can in-house recognize them and give them some extras. The numbers are beyond what we expected. I love having a loyalty program because we can directly reward you for coming in.
You’re in Greece right now, doing some R&D. Have you traveled to Greece extensively before? What is inspiring you on this trip?
I went to Socrates Day School as a little girl growing up in Chicago. Half the day was in Greek and half in English. When we were younger, as soon as school let out, my family would be in Greece every summer from June until September. I grew up going to Mykonos and the Mykonos you see on TikTok now is certainly not what it used to be.
We’re looking at bringing some unique Greek salts to the restaurants for the steaks. We’re always trying to introduce interesting things to people and offer really high quality products and innovative dishes without a Michelin star price. We are still an affordable steakhouse. We’re trying our hardest every day to keep things affordable.
What about the wine and cocktails? Have you expanded the program since taking over?
Peter Vestinos from Sparrow helped us with our new cocktails. We’ve been told many times that we have the best martini in Chicago. Santorini is known for having the best capers in the world, so we put Santorini capers or caper leaves in it depending on availability. I hope to never hear the word ‘supply chain issues’ again in my life.
We’ve also added more Greek wines to the list. Greece never got phylloxera, so the varietals that we have are not replanted on American rootstock like they are in France. I love our Assyrtiko in summer and the Megas Oenos Skouras red with steaks.
You’re open for lunch Monday through Friday. Is your lunch crowd back?
Chicago is so spotty. The financial district is not what it used to be and the market is weird, but there are two or three lunch days that are banging, and then some days it’s only half-full, but the crowd skews older and it’s like Mad Men — they’re having Old Fashioneds and martinis at lunch.
We also do a lot of private events and have a private dining room off to the side with a separate entrance that politicians and people who need protection can use. We’ll be expanding our private events space as well to hold larger groups of up to 175 people. Our private lunches do really well and our staff has been here for eons, so they’re very knowledgeable. When people are trying to impress guests who are European, and they want a private room with old-school European service, they pick us.
When NeoCon came back to the Merchandise Mart in June, there were 55,000 people across the street. That was the craziest busy we’ve been, and it was so lovely for everybody who hadn’t seen us in so long to see all of our familiar faces. Everybody was hugging and kissing. It was heartwarming.
Amber Gibson is a Chicago-based journalist specializing in travel, food, and wine. Her work has appeared in Departures, Food & Wine, Saveur, Bon Appétit, and Travel + Leisure. Follow her here; follow Resy too.