Byron Kouris (right) with former partner Mike Payne.
Updated: May 11, 2012 8:04AM
When Byron Kouris first talked about opening an ice cream parlor near Wilson and Ravenswood, people told him he was nuts.
At the time, the area was considered off the beaten path, but shortly after he opened Zephyr Restaurant in 1976, customers came in droves, often forming lines down the block on spring and summer evenings.
“Byron was way ahead of his time with Zephyr,” said Rosemary Lucas, a former manager at the restaurant, which eventually expanded to include the entire first floor of the building. It closed in 2006 after 30 years in business.
“It was a Chicago icon,” she said.
The old-fashioned diner rocked an art deco theme with mirrored walls and neon lights. It served generous portions of food named after stars of the 1920s and ’30s, such as the Greta Garbo Salad and Duke Ellington Club.
Zephyr was most famous for its fantastic ice cream creations. There was the War of the Worlds, a gargantuan 10-scoop sundae; the Marathon, a 64-ounce shake; Frankenstein’s Monster, a big banana split, and the Son of Frankenstein, an even bigger banana split.
“There were six guys and their job was just to scoop ice cream, so you can imagine how busy we were,” Lucas said.
Mr. Kouris, a Chicago resident who also founded the popular North Side chain Byron’s Hot Dogs, died March 30 at St. Joseph Hospital in Chicago from complications of diabetes, according to his cousin, Valerie Green. He was 76.
Mr. Kouris was born and raised in Chicago, the son of a Greek immigrant and a Greek American who owned a grocery store for a number of years near Magnolia and Sunnyside.
In the mid-1960s, Mr. Kouris ventured into the restaurant business and opened a series of fast-food sandwich shops called the Lunch Pail that dotted the bus route on Wilson.
He closed the shops after about 10 years to focus on Zephyr, as well as his up-and-coming hot dog stand.
“He was very particular” while developing his restaurants, Green said. “He wanted to get everything just right.”
Byron’s Hot Dogs opened in 1975 on Irving Park Road near Wrigley Field, and soon after, business boomed. At one point there were five stores; two remain open.
Byron’s, one of the first businesses inducted into Chicago-based Vienna Beef’s Hot Dog Hall of Fame, offers a salad bar of toppings, including lettuce, cucumbers and green peppers, in addition to the traditional Chicago-style condiments. Mr. Kouris’ favorite was the double cheeseburger with grilled onions, mustard and a pickle.
“All of the food is made fresh, and we use top-notch products,” said Mike Payne, Mr. Kouris’ former business partner and the owner of Byron’s. “That’s one of the main things I learned from Byron. If you have a good product, don’t try to change it.”
Regular patrons have included former governors Rod Blagojevich and Jim Thompson, who used Byron’s hot dogs in sports wagers with governors from other states.
Sen. Dick Durbin is a fan and recommended it to the White House for the congressional picnic in 2010.
“Senator Durbin told them, ‘If you want to use Chicago-style hot dogs, you have to call Byron’s,’ ” Payne said.
White House staff ended up creating a replica of a Byron’s counter on the South Lawn, where they served more than 700 hot dogs.
“It was totally incredible,” Payne said.
It was not unusual for customers to visit Byron’s years after moving out of Chicago.
The same was true for Zephyr, which even hosted a few wedding parties, sometimes for couples who had their first date at the restaurant.
“There were three generations of families coming in,” said William Henderson, a close friend. “The people were really sad when Zephyr had to close.”
Mr. Kouris, largely considered the creative force behind the projects, worked with his wife, Gloria, and his business partner, Lou Bacoyanis, to make Zephyr a success.
A lifelong Cubs fan, Mr. Kouris was a season ticketholder for 25 years. He was involved with the Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce; the Levy Senior Center and a number of other local charities.
Other survivors include a daughter, Kimberly Marie; a son, Tony, and two grandchildren.
Services have been held.