Best Saganaki: The Flaming Greek Cheese Appetizer That Has Chicago Saying OPA!
I’ll never forget the first time I saw the light. I was just a kid enjoying dinner with my family when it suddenly appeared. The flame shot wildly towards the ceiling before being tamed by lemon juice and a waiter’s steady hand. The whole experience lasted only a few seconds but it changed my life forever.
It was a delicious rite of passage that delighted my senses on so many levels. Never before had I witnessed such a unique display of cheese, brandy, lemon and fire...presented finally with
a glorious shout of OPA! And my family ate it up.
Of course, we’re talking about Saganaki, the famous Greek cheese appetizer that is flambeed and served table side at restaurants throughout Chicagoland. That night, dinner out became a sort of celebration, a spontaneous reminder of how the little things often bring the most joy. It was almost as if our waiter had declared a one word blessing on our family as he placed the anticipated cast-iron plate at the center of our table...OPA!
Oh, the simple things in life.
But what does OPA actually mean? And why is it mostly associated with the lighting of Saganaki? Greeks and non-Greeks both agree that the word has very favorable connotations and is often used to express a myriad of positive emotions. Even though the expression is sometimes used to express playful frustration following mishaps, today it's very common to hear OPA! shouted at weddings, dances, birthdays and of course, restaurants serving the popular appetizer.
Legend also has it that the very first "SOS" (Saganaki OPA shout), happened right here in Chicago in the mid 1960’s. At Chicago’s late great Parthenon Restaurant (which lasted for 48 years on Halsted Street), owner Chris Liakouras was just trying to be creative one day when he took some random advice from an unknown female customer to flame the Saganaki she had ordered. And he happily obliged. But, alas, controversy quickly ensued when fellow restauranteur Petros Kogiones at the nearby Dianna’s Opa claimed his first OPA declaration occurred years earlier. In those days, an order of Saganaki cost $1.25 while a gallon of gas was 35 cents.
But no matter who started the verbal tradition, shouts of OPA! carry on every day at restaurants around Chicagoland, the country and even the world. Hungry patrons love to order the cheesy appetizer as a tasty and fun way to begin a great meal. And depending on where you dine, chances are you’ll be enjoying one of several fine brands of Saganaki cheese including Kefalograviera, Graviera and Kefalotyri. Brandy is the spirit of choice poured right before the cheese is flamed adding a zest of flavor to the mix and evaporating quickly to avoid a soggy Saganaki.
While the Greeks are definitely known for enjoying a wide variety of delicious foods within their culture, Saganaki certainly boasts strong cross-over appeal that makes it a unique staple on so many restaurant menus. So if you’re out today and feeling a little cheesy (sorry), let the gooey goodness of the endearing Greek cheese melt your taste buds and warm your heart.
Just like it did that night during my childhood when a tall waiter served our family with our very first Saganaki while joyfully shouting OPA! The aroma of flamed cheese wafting over our table created a memory this kid will never forget.
Oh, the simple things in life.
Enjoy flaming Saganaki at these fine Chicagoland restaurants:
• The Greek Islands (Chicago & Lombard)
The landmark restaurant is known for its consistency, quality, value and spacious yet cozy dining areas. Specialties include Pastichio, Roast Lamb, Dolmades, Hot or Cold Octopus, Greek Salad, Fresh Seafood, Lamb Chops and of course, flaming Saganaki. Say OPA! to Chicago's most popular Greek restaurant.
200 S Halsted St • Chicago IL 60661 • (312) 782-9855
Visit the Greek Islands website...
• Plateia Mediterranean Kitchen (Des Plaines)
A creative twist on traditional Greek cuisine, Plateia offers a refined setting to enjoy award winning Lamb Chops, outstanding Honey Custard Sweet Crepes, Biftekia, Chicken Skewers, Pastichio, Atlantic Grilled Salmon, Beet Salad, flaming Saganaki and more. Accommodating 20-150 people for private parties and other special events. Beautiful outdoor patio in seasonal months.
9860 N Milwaukee Ave • Glenview IL 60016 • (847) 296-2230
Visit the Plateia website...
• Demetri's Greek Restaurant (Deerfield)
Serving the north shore for over three decades, Demetri's offers classic Greek items including Moussaka, Fresh Seafood, Grilled Octopus, Roast Leg of Lamb, Gyros Platter and more. Guests also love the flaming Saganaki, Greek Salad, Jumbo Shrimp, Dolmades and Avgolemeno (Egg Lemon Soup). Cozy outdoor patio in warmer months.
660 Lake Cook Road • Deerfield IL 60015 • (847) 940-0777
Visit Demetri's website...
• Johnny's Kitchen & Tap (Glenview)
This Glenview favorite serves their famous wood roasted chicken, baby back ribs, rotisserie roasted pork, burgers, steaks, seafood and more. Start your meal with flaming Saganaki and enjoy Johnny's full wine list, craft beers, martinis and tempting desserts. Live entertainment in the lounge every weekend. Full catering available.
1740 Milwaukee Ave • Glenview IL 60025 • (847) 699-9999
Visit Johnny's website...
• Thassos Greek Restaurant (Palos Hills)
The newest Greek restaurant on the south side, Thassos has already earned a reputation for its outstanding food including Chicken Riganati, Fresh Whole Sea Bass, Appetizers, Salads, Pastichio, Roast Lamb and more. Enjoy flaming Saganaki and other traditional Greek favorites in Thassos' dining room or spacious lounge area.
11011 SW Hwy • Palos Hills IL 60465 • (708) 671-8958
Visit Thassos' website...
• QP Greek Food With a Kick (Hoffman Estates)
Greek-style pitas, meatballs, skewers, ribs and chicken are just the beginning at this stylish Mediterranean eatery. Enjoy unique flavors with a kick in the clean and contemporary setting. Daily specials available along with QP's famous Saganaki and Avgolemeno Soup. Try the popular Greek Feta Pizza and Caesar Salad. Full Bar and catering.
830 N Roselle Road • Hoffman Estates IL 60169 • (224) 353-6999
Visit the QP website...
• Basil's Greek Dining (Aurora)
Blending old school values with modern flair, Basil's is a celebration of authentic Mediterranean dining serving appetizers, salads, pastas, shish kabobs, pork chops and more. Beautiful dining room with adjacent bar is the perfect setting to enjoy signature Greek dishes including Pastichio, Mediterranean Sea Bass, Grilled Octopus and Double Cut Lamb Chops. Private parties for up to 75 people.
4000 Fox Valley Center Drive • Aurora IL 60504 • (630) 692-1300
Visit Basil's website...
• Mykonos Greek Restaurant (Niles)
Serving authentic Greek cuisine for over 40 years, this legendary restaurant is known for their Charcoal Octopus, Souvlaki, Aegean-Style Salmon, Roast Lamb, Moussaka, Pastichio, Greek style fries and flaming Saganaki. Live Greek Music every Friday.
8660 W Golf Road • Niles IL 60714 • (847) 296-6777
Visit the Mykonos website...
• Naxos, A Greek Island Restaurant (Itasca)
Taste the spirit of the Mediterranean with signature Greek items including Grilled Calamari, Cold Octopus Salad, Greek Meat Balls, Fresh Red Snapper, Beef Tenderloin Kabob and Roast Leg of Lamb. Enjoy Naxos famous Avgolemeno Soup and Flaming Saganaki. Full bar and catering.
933 W Irving Park Road • Itasca IL 60143 • (847) 250-5410
Visit the Naxos' website...
• Blossom Cafe (Norridge)
A favorite family restaurant in Norridge, Blossom Cafe serves all your favorite breakfast items plus sandwiches, burgers, wraps, chicken, pasta, steaks and more. Popular Greek items include Greek chicken, salads, pork chops, Mediterranean Shrimp, Skirt Steak and flaming Saganaki. Banquet room available for up to 120 people.
8349 W Lawrence Ave • Norridge IL 60706 • (708) 453-5300
Visit the Blossom Cafe website...
• Alexander's Cafe (Elgin)
Enjoy an extensive menu at Alexander's featuring appetizers, sandwiches, wraps, burgers, tacos, chicken, pasta, fresh seafood and more. Grecian specialties include Athenian Salmon, Mediterranean Chicken, Greek Salad and flaming Saganaki. Weekend specials include Alexander's famous Prime Rib of Beef.
1725 N State St • Elgin IL 60123 • (847) 888-4146
Visit the Alexander's website...
• Niko's Red Mill Tavern (Woodstock)
This bustling restaurant features spacious dining areas with indoor and outdoor bars where customers can enjoy appetizers, burgers, wraps, pulled pork and other tavern favorites. Try the Greek Pizza, Mediterranean Wrap and flaming Saganaki. Niko's also hosts great live entertainment all year long.
1040 Lake Ave • Woodstock IL 60098 • (815) 338-6455
Visit Niko's website...