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New Modern Grill, Neither New Nor Modern, Seeks Upgrade as Area Changes

By Serena Dai | November 6, 2013 7:04am
 New Modern Grill, 3171 N. Halsted St., plans to upgrade after 25 years in business and nearly two decades since any interior renovations.
New Modern Grill
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LAKEVIEW — Chris Karountzos won't lie to you: She knows that the name of her family's corner diner, "New Modern Grill," is a bit of a misnomer.

It's been nearly two decades since the diner at 3171 N. Halsted St. has had an upgrade — a fact obvious from old whiteboards on the wall and layers of tape over the torn red barstools.

"I'll be honest, the place is a little shabby," Karountzos said. "We need to do some things here. The place is tired. We're a little bit tired."

But as the diner celebrates its 25th year the corner of Belmont and Halsted, the owners are finally looking to renovate, Karountzos said. And with some luck, the renovation will happen with the help of the regulars and fans who've helped keep the diner alive.

The Karountzos family is one of thousands of small businesses across the country vying for 12 $250,000 grants as part of the Chase bank Mission Main Street program. In order to reach the next round of the competition, the grill had to get at least 250 votes from Facebook fans.

They were the first business in 60657, Lakeview's biggest zip code, to reach the vote count. Voting lasts until Nov. 15. 

"We got 78 votes in one day," Karountzos said. "It made us happy. I asked you guys to show me the love and you guys did it."

Making the New Modern Grill space fit the name is a matter of keeping up with the neighborhood.

When they moved to the Belmont and Halsted location in October 1988 and changed the restaurant's name from "Modern Grill" to "New Modern Grill," Lakeview was a different place, Karountzos said.

Many regular customers came from single resident occupancy hotels like The Abbott and the Chateau. Those customers are gone now that most of the are SROs have shuttered. And as rents in the neighborhood rose, Modern Grill saw more turnover in residents, who moved to cheaper waters or rented for just a year or two, Karountzos said.

The area now also has more theaters, more bars and, with them, more people coming from outside of the neighborhood. Those are the people that Modern Grill seeks to attract with a renovation.

Many residents still come in to dine as regulars, but outsiders are tougher sells. She sees people come in, look at the interior and walk out the door.

"To get a little of that money coming from out of the neighborhood, we do have to make it more visually appealing," Karountzos said. "It's a visual thing. They don't give us a chance long enough to try the food."

Despite the turnover, the Karountzoses have managed to stay open without debt and while keeping the prices of the diner's classic menu of omelets, burgers and sandwiches low, with most items costing no more than $7.

But they did have to shorten hours, fire some employees and work full-time themselves. Karountzos, her husband and her father, all Portage Park residents, spend most of their time at Belmont and Halsted.

Karountzos knows the grant is competitive, but if the grill wins it, it could be the quick flush of cash Modern Grill needs to renovate and hopefully hire more people.

Even if they don't, the family is determined to bring the diner's look up to more "modern" standards, she said.

Ideally, the seats will be replaced. The bars will be moved to face the windows and allow for people watching at the busy corner. The old whiteboards, which she's been afraid to take down due to the cost of fixing the wall underneath, could finally be taken down.

It will just take a longer. 

"We're not new, we're not modern," she said, "but we're working on it."