Quintessential People

America’s Kitchen

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by David Rutter | Photo: thomas balsamo

It’s 5:30 a.m.

Dawn in the “Republic of Sam and Chris” is 3,600 seconds away. This republic, of course, is tangible though only a philosophical state of mind. But it’s nonetheless real. Just be patient. The metaphysical front door to America will open soon.

Gaggles of hungry customers huddle outside the darkened door as they have for 20 years, waiting for owners Chris and Sam Nikolaidis to open the snug little emporium on Barrington’s main drag. Coffee. Must have coffee. Come on in, have a seat and meet America.

Any American town’s main street without some version of the Bread Basket is not much of a main street. Any main street without people like Sam and Chris Nikolaidis lacks American substance. They are human infrastructure. This bistro is your breakfast table at home, the kitchen where your mom cooks, or once did.

The pine-walled décor there has not been chic since 1935. The glass light fixtures overhead were hung when the space was McLeister’s Sweets Emporium and Soda Shop in 1913. What the current menu lacks in culinary chic is counterbalanced by unadorned charm. It’s rich and straight-forward American food.

Those who make this joint run do not represent the only real America, of course. There are thousands of definitions of what America is. They all are accurate to some degree and simultaneously incomplete. But when we think of what the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave might be in its finer embodiments, you couldn’t find many more appealing places than this.

That’s because this is the unofficial Republic of Sam and Chris who have been married for “long enough,” Sam says, as if no one will challenge the deliberate imprecision. Chris elbows him gently. “Forty-seven years,” she announces. And then they giggle. She gently scolds him in hushed Greek.

They do not quite understand why you’d think they represent America, but they do in several emotional, devotional, and aspirational ways. He is 74 now and she is 67. They come to work every day. They see no reason to stop. They are in love. That, too, is inescapable.

They, like almost every first American generation, came from somewhere far away to build a better life. They are your parents, grandparents, or most assuredly great grandparents. Some fled oppression and deprivation. Many did not speak English when they arrived, or even know what being American was supposed to mean. Some came before there was a Statue of Liberty. But what they all share sustains Sam and Chris even today. They work hard and make that work pay off in their lives. They seized hope. They arrived explicitly to work and earn. They yearned to build their own America. “And to have babies,” Chris notes.

As for The Bread Basket Family Restaurant, no strangers here. No grumps. Everybody is a friend, or will be in about 10 seconds if you entered as a mystery guest. The Bread Basket is Chris and Sam Nikolaidis, and they are its soul.

The ancient milky-glass light fixtures blink awake at 5:30 or so while dawn is still an hour from tossing off the covers and leaping to face the day. Kitchens awake to a poetic reveille. The silverware starts to clink against the coffee cups. The ovens and grills rouse themselves. Eggs are drained into pans. The eggs cackle. Coffee chirps in large pots.

Sam and Chris close up at 3 p.m., and eventually head for their tidy, ordered brick home near Lake Arlington in Arlington Heights. You can tell the house by the massive fortress of Chris-grown flowers that rings it during warm months. Her dahlias are famous.

They have raised three daughters to adulthood. That has led to seven grandchildren. “Sent all three daughters to college. No student loans,” mom said.

Between the first of five commercial kitchens which Sam and Chris have run for more than 40 years, they have broken 1.47 million eggs and prepared 350,000 hearty meals. It’s math as an educated guess. Of their current menu of 300 items, only one or two costs more than $10. This fulfills the unannounced marketing theory that your mom wouldn’t charge you a hundred bucks for lunch.

This snug shotgun-shaped building is where much of Barrington’s venerable business district takes a seat for breakfast before going to work. Sam and Chris plus a small but lively staff serve about 150 meals a day through to late lunch.

But that is now. To understand how far and what human drives brought Sam and Chris to 131 Park Ave., you’ll have to go far away and a long, long time ago.

A Remarkable History

They weren’t Sam Nikolaidis and Chris Nikolaidis then. He was Sotirios Bletas, and she was Chrisoula Kehagia. “Sotirios means “the saver” in Greek,” Chris says. “It’s a good name for him. He saved me.”

They were both Greeks from the northwest mountain realms, though Sotirios was not really Greek. He was born in adjacent Albania. He was an infant when his father and two uncles had taken the family by foot across the barb-wired border into Greece to escape World War II’s fury in Albania.

That nation began the war as a monarchy, was taken by Mussolini’s fascists and later submerged again by the Soviet Union. “The rest of the family had to stay behind because you couldn’t take the goats and chickens through the barbed wire,” Sam says. Having the wrong political opinion in 1943 Albania was dangerous. “The rest of the family went to prison,” Sam added. “So, I have been an immigrant twice.” To make sure the past did not follow them, the family changed its name to Nikolaidis.

What Sam most values today has survived unchanged from his father. “When I came to America, I had a fifth-grade grammar school education and no real skills,” he said. “I taught myself to cook.”

But what he had packed was an unlimited faith in toil for himself and in service to those he loved. “My father sold olive oil from a five-gallon can he carried on his back through the community neighborhoods,” he remembers. “But that came to be too much for him; so he built a little cart that he pulled. And then he added a donkey to pull it so he added sugar, rice, and butter to what he sold. I miss him most of all.”

A framed picture of Sam’s father with his little food cart is among the family’s most iconic remembrances at the restaurant. Hundreds of customer snapshots frame the walls, too.

Sam grew up in the lakeside, cosmopolitan Greek city of Ioannina, a regional, cultural hub of 100,000 folks, 195 miles from Athens. It is, as are most substantial cities in Greece, rich in cultural crosscurrents.

He didn’t know Chris until later. She lived in the mountain village of Patero. “It was 100 people, no running water, no electricity, one telephone,” she says. “Everybody in town was my relative. They were all cousins.”

Escape to a better life was an easy ambition. Sam had joined his parents in Chicago but, by family agreement, returned to Greece in search of a life partner. “He met this woman who asked him why he’d come back. He told her. She said, ‘I think I have a good girl just for you,’” Chris recounts. “She was my aunt.”

Eventually Sam and Chris showed up separately at a local chocolate store under deep chaperone. “My mothers and aunts and his uncles,” she says.

He’s cute. She is, too. It’s a start. This was before love, and even before infatuation or romance. Sam and Chris followed the Old World “arranged marriage” motif. “Her father demanded only that I come back to Greece with her in 10 years,” Sam says. “So, we did promise. But we couldn’t stand it when we came back.”

By that time, Sam and Chris were Americans in love, even though their first Chicago apartment was a test of hope. “We had two bedrooms and 10 people slept there,” Chris says. Everybody—mom, dad, uncles, cousins—worked. Sam’s dad had his own American food pushcart. “But he got robbed a couple of times, and I made him move to Greek Town.”

Work paid off. Sam’s first American triumph was a new Oldsmobile. “A convertible; can you believe it?” he says. “Yes, we’d put all 10 people in the convertible and no seatbelts,” Chris adds. For a year, they all constructed Zenith televisions.

Then Sam began his culinary career as downtown Chicago restaurant dishwasher, then a junior co-owner, and eventually a self-taught chef. There were restaurants he and Chris owned in Melrose Park and Wheeling, and now Barrington.

As to life motives and the fruit of those ambitions, Chris says the formula is deceptively simple, but not easy. “There is no secret to it,” she says. “You cook good food every day, and you are good with people,” she says.

You have to like people to be good in the restaurant business. It’s an intimate environment in which hostility has a short shelf life. “Barrington has been a wonderful place for us,” she says. “We think we have been a success.”

In truth, they saved themselves with a life they had barely comprehended could exist. Barrington seems to love them nearly as much as they love Barrington.

As for Sam and Chris, they found love in a marriage that began more as useful partnership and deepened into profound passion. Their shared hopes were simple. They began as friends with secret hopes, and then found deeper, enduring devotion in a warm-as-toast kitchen before dawn.

They also found a country to love. They are true, literal Americans now. “We love this country,” Chris says.

Chris basks in the triumphs of those lives well-spent and well-earned. They found a way. “Our dreams met together.”

Here are some words that Bread Basket customers have shared.

Diane Bennett

I am a “regular” at Bread Basket. My friend Dee Dee Johnson and I eat breakfast there several times a week after we go for a run (or not!). When we walk in the restaurant we are greeted by name. Sam is often in the back booth with a friend or talking on the phone if he is not in the kitchen cooking. He always acknowledges us and gives us a wave or a nod if he can’t get up to come by our table and say hello. Sometimes Sam gives me his over ripe bananas so I can take them home to make banana bread. Sam often brings us Greek treats and special dishes that he has made. His fried zucchini is amazing! I have learned how to cook a great leg of lamb from Sam.

I used to come to the bread basket as a little girl growing up in Barrington. When I started becoming a regular again in the past 7-8 years I was so happy to see that Sam and Chris did not change the murals on the walls. They are exactly as I remembered them from way back when. This familiarity and the warm, friendly staff and welcoming owners makes this one of my most favorite parts of Barrington.

Col. Paul Brown, USAF, Retired

I think everyone in the Barrington area knows that the members of the Barrington VFW and American Legion Posts do a series of ceremonies at the area’s cemeteries each Memorial Day. This usually involves several dozen veterans and takes most of the morning. What most people don’t know is that the participating veterans meet at the Bread Basket around 6 a.m. on Memorial Day and are treated to a full breakfast, thanks to Sam and Chris Nikolaidis. This is a rather solemn series of events for us on that day, but the hospitality and generosity of Sam and Chris and their staff get us off on a bright start. I look forward to it, every year. My sincere thanks go out to them.

Cathy and John Peter Curielli

We have been going to the Bread Basket Restaurant since we moved to Barrington over 40 years ago. Chris and Sam are clients and friends of ours. We always get a warm greeting when we go to the Bread Basket. It is Barrington’s answer to the Cheers TV show. Sam and Chris always try to do something extra. They are very special people. We have met all of their children at one time or another at the restaurant. It is apparent that they have done a great job in raising their family. Chris is a fantastic gardener and in the summer, there is always a magnificent bouquet of flowers at the front counter. Little touches like this add a special warmth to the Bread Basket. Sam and John Peter were talking one day and they both noted that sometimes they don’t hear what people are saying; John Peter said it was because of his hearing aids, and Sam said he understood, because when he first came here from Greece, he also did not understand what people were saying so he smiled and nodded a lot.

Bill, Margaret, and Will Graff

Sam and Chris have been serving “comfort food and smiles” to our family for years. While their food is always delicious and hits the spot, their kindness and smiles are what we really enjoy. It is those two ingredients that are the base to their business success and to our friendship through the years. Sam and Chris always want to hear about our family updates and in turn, they share wonderful stories about their growing clan and many grandchildren. The “other bonus” at the Bread Basket is the staff Sam and Chris have working for them. It is that group of folks who are the other “secret sauce” one craves at every Bread Basket visit. No week is ever complete without a visit to the Bread Basket, and sharing some cherished conversations with our friends Sam and Chris, and always enjoying a good omelet or two!

Lenn Grant

The Bread Basket Restaurant provides a comfortable Barrington experience, one that surrounds the customer in Barrington history, and where you can relax and enjoy quality food for a very reasonable price. Sam and Chris will greet you with a smile and will engage in a friendly conversation. Sam’s gregarious nature and sense of humor will add to the enjoyment of eating and socializing at his restaurant. The employees

emulate the personality of Sam and Chris, very personable and courteous. Sam dedicates seven days a week-preparing homemade soups, baking, and cooking the specials of the day, and offering the best milk shakes in town using the old-time fountain mixers. Visiting the Bread Basket gives you the feeling of living in a community that you can call home; a place where you meet your friends and create memories, and where the owners, Sam and Chris, treat you with respect and gratitude.

Dee Dee Johnson

Diane Bennett and I are “regulars” at the Bread Basket. We usually meet there 3-5 times a week after our daily run, or just to catch up. Sam and Chris make us feel like family. We have shared laughs and tears with them as we chat with one another, answer our emails, and catch up about our families.

The staff knows our order by heart, as it is the same day in and day out. But it makes us feel special. Everyone always asks how our runs went, how far, and what we are training for. On our birthdays, Sam is the first person to help us celebrate with the prettiest ice cream sundae around, even at 8 a.m. in the morning. I love when I see Sam in the kitchen making my breakfast!

The morning crowd seems to have assigned seats.The group of retired men with their newspapers solving world issues at a table against the wall, the two of us in the middle, the banker at the booth just starting his day, the adult son and mom who meet weekly to catch up, and the grandparents whose day it is to watch their grandchildren who come in for chocolate chip pancakes.

My children have literally grown up at the Bread Basket. It was the place I stopped at while coming home from the hospital with our first born. A few years back, while eating breakfast, we received some terrible news about a dear friend who passed, and was also a customer at BB. He was dearly loved by all who knew him and a regular at BB. While we cried and hugged, it felt more like family than just a restaurant.

Lisa Stamos

Going to the Bread Basket is like going home. When I need a homecooked meal and a smile, that is where I go. Sam and Chris and their entire staff are lovely people. My late brother, Bob Murphy, was a regular at “the Basket” and we often met there for a meal. A few years ago, I had lunch with Bob, and when I went up front to pay the tab, and he must have darted out the back door. It was unusual for him to not say goodbye. I came back to “our booth” and he was gone. That night he passed in his sleep. I will always remember the kindness of Sam and his entire staff around our mutual loss—for me a brother, and for them, a smart, humorous character—a customer who was also a friend. That they all came to Bob’s visitation was so heartwarming. I will be forever grateful for that act of kindness.

The Younger Family

As a family, we’ve been gathering and dining at the bread basket for three generations and have known Chris and Sam from the beginning. What makes Chris and Sam special is that they know our family and make us feel like an extended part of theirs. We certainly consider them and extension of ours. They have watched our grandchildren grow. Chris is an amazing gardener and from spring till late fall provides a large, fresh bouquet on the counter, which makes you smile as soon as you enter the restaurant. Sam is there on every day and warmly greets our family with hugs and salutations. He provides a full breakfast and lunch menu and ensures that food is prepared carefully by the chefs or even himself. Chris cheerfully greets our family by name and with a smile and large hugs. Sam and Chris are thoughtful, caring, and focused on ensuring their customers are satisfied.

John Zucco & Family

For almost 20 years the Bread Basket has been a place for my family to go for great food and good conversations. Sam and Chris could not be more caring about their part in the Barrington community and in their customers’ life’s. There is always a warm greeting, beautiful flowers from their garden and a stop at your table to ask how your day is going. There is always a genuine concern if you are having a problem. I can only wish Sam and Chris good things in life as he has done for us.

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David Rutter is a regular contributor to Quintessential Barrington.

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Publisher’s Note: Quintessential People™ is a heartfelt collaboration between our publication and portrait artist Thomas Balsamo. Our goal is to share exceptional images and words that ring true about some of the finest, most inspiring people in our community. For more information, contact QB at publisher@qbarrington.com, or Thomas Balsamo (Portraits By Thomas) at 847-381-7710, or visit www.portraitsbythomas.com.