By Bob Uphues
Word slowly had been filtering through the community last week, but on Sunday the dam broke. The previous day the Stanga family announced on the Riverside Restaurant's website that April 19 would be the last day you'd be able to order breaded pork tenderloin, roast duck or liver dumpling soup.
Mary and Peter Stanga were retiring. Riverside Restaurant was closing for good.
By Sunday morning that announcement had been shared widely on Facebook and by mid-afternoon patrons wanting to get a final meal from the Slovak-inspired menu were lined up out the door.
"It's been wonderful," said Mary Stanga during an interview in a booth at the restaurant on Monday, the only day of the week they're closed for business. "We've made a lot of friends. Our customers are like our family. We've been through good times and bad times together. We have a very loyal following."
The Stangas have been kicking around the thought of retiring for the past couple of years, Mary said. It's been the customers and the relationships the Stangas have formed with them that have kept the doors open so long.
But running is a restaurant can be all-consuming – "you're here even when you're not here," Stanga said. And now is the time to turn the page.
"I know there's a lot of people that are going to miss us, and we're going to miss them," Stanga said. "Unfortunately, age has caught up with us, and it's time to wind down a little bit."
It's been a heck of a run for the ethnic eatery. The business was known as the Riverside Restaurant and a place where you could get authentic Czechoslovakian specialties as far back as the mid-1960s.
Mary and Peter Stanga, along with Peter's sister, Aris, bought the property and the business in 1982 after a five-year run as proprietors of Bohemian Crown restaurant near the intersection of Lake Street and Harlem Avenue in River Forest.
The couple met through their church in the Little Village neighborhood on Chicago's Southwest Side, once the city's Bohemian capital. Mary lived near 26th Street and Pulaski and Peter, immigrated to the United States and settled in Chicago in 1968, the year the Soviets invaded the country then known as Czechoslovakia.
Mary, Peter and Aris honed their skills as restaurateurs in the cozy River Forest eatery – Mary worked the front of the house while Peter and Aris worked in the kitchen – before moving to the much larger space at 3422 Harlem Ave. in Riverside in 1982.
"We said we'll come here; we'll be here for maybe five to 10 years
Because the Riverside Restaurant already catered to the tastes of the local Bohemian community, said Mary, the transition to their ownership was pretty seamless. The recipes that kept diners coming back were ones Peter and Aris brought with them from Slovakia.
"We are the ethnicity we are cooking, so we knew how to make the food," Stanga said. "We knew what the food was supposed to taste like, we knew how to make it. … And also we had a lot of good employees along the way."
For diners like Jennifer Levitt, of Berwyn, and her husband, Jeffrey, places like Riverside Restaurant are irreplaceable throwbacks in a modern age.
"It's a special kind of a place that you don't have that often anymore," said Levitt, whose favorite dish is the Wiener schnitzel. Her husband's is the roast duck.
A place that delivers "good comfort food and a lot of bang for your buck," Riverside Restaurant for Levitt is like "sitting in grandma's dining room."
And, if you're eating something at Riverside Restaurant, you're pretty much assured it was made there and not trucked in from an outside vendor. They bake their own bread make their own dumplings, kolacky and dill gravy.
"Most of the recipes were basically personal recipes, and some were fine-tuned, but the basic were always there," Stanga said. "We still cook, we make the dumplings. So maybe that's why we were around for so long. I think we tie people to their roots."
It's not clear just what will replace Riverside Restaurant, or when. The village's community relations director, Sonya Abt, said she's had inquiries from one family interested in the space, but there's been no business license application submitted.