It’s almost 11:30 a.m. on a brisk, sunny Tuesday and Huck Finn Restaurant in McKinley Park is getting busier by the minute. Huck Finn retains the classic American diner traits: Squat glasses of water sweating on linoleum countertops, elderly couples silently stirring creamer into ceramic cups of coffee, toddlers gleefully digging their fingers into piles of scrambled eggs: this is a diner, from its white paneled drop ceiling to the vaguely wood-patterned tiles on the floor.
Chicagoans, and South Siders in particular, however, know that there’s more to Huck Finn than meets the eye. A family-owned institution for more than five decades, the diner serves famously massive Alaska cake doughnuts, practically Saturn-sized rings of sugary joy, as well as not-as-large and slightly more (ironically) reasonable Texas doughnuts. There are options in standard sizes, too. The menu, with items like liver and onions, and split-pea soup, represents a time capsule of American culture from the ‘60s to ‘70s.
“When people come in, we treat them like family and they know they’re going to leave happy and satisfied with their meal at a decent price,” general manager Demetrios Hiotis, son of co-owner Paul Hiotis, says. “We get to know them — they’re a part of our lives, so we become a part of theirs. That’s how we’ve been able to sustain over the years.”
The origins of the diner are murky prior to 1971, when brothers George and Paul Hiotis, Greek immigrants who arrived in the U.S. in 1959 and 1966 respectively, purchased Huck Finn Restaurant from a man named J.C. Sherril at the corner of Archer and Kedzie avenues in Brighton Park, and kept its recognizable name. George Hiotis would go on to fight with the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War and earned a Purple Heart for his service.
Over time, George and Paul Hiotis were joined in the business by a third brother, Ted Hiotis, and relocated to 3414 S. Archer Avenue. Their families grew, and as more cousins and relatives, including cousin George Hrysikos, became involved in the restaurant, it expanded in 1983 to 6650 S. Pulaski Road in West Lawn and in 1998 made a leap outside the city to 10501 S. Cicero Avenue in suburban Oak Lawn.
All are open seven days a week, though the suburban outpost is the only location to operate 24 hours. Its urban siblings serve from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. — a change that emerged following fluctuating pandemic regulations in 2020 and 2021. The shift in hours is a loss for the South Side, where residents long viewed Huck Finn as a late-night haunt where patrons could dig into breakfast for dinner or inhale doughnuts into the wee hours.
There have also been happy surprises along the way for the Hiotis family. One involves a chance encounter with Ernie Banks, the Hall of Fame shortstop who played for the Chicago Cubs from 1953 to 1971. During a chance encounter around 2005 at a Cubs game, Demetrios Hiotis says he met Banks, who promised to stop in and buy some doughnuts: “I was like, ‘Sure, Ernie, whatever,” says Demetrios Hiotis, a White Sox fan who in 2005 celebrated the team’s first World Series in 87 years.
But sure enough, weeks later on a busy Saturday morning, a voice on the phone yelled into Demetrios’s ear: “Cubs win! Cubs win!”
“I’m thinking, ‘This is some crazy guy.’ But it’s Ernie Banks, and half an hour later he comes over. My dad is a big Cubs fan so he was pretty shocked to meet [Banks] in his restaurant like that. It was cool for me to have played a part in that.”
Generations of the Hiotis and Hrysikos families have followed the path laid by their fathers and uncles. “I’ve been with the restaurant all my life and grew up with it visiting my dad at work,” Demetrios Hiotis says. “Eventually that led to a summer job, which became more of a career path. I have cousins and a brother that are involved who have a pretty similar story. It grows on you — that’s just life as you know it.”
The small, swaggering figure of Huckleberry Finn is the 13-year-old protagonist of Mark Twain’s satirical novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The tale of antebellum Americana has been the subject of much controversy since its original publication in 1884, in large part due to its liberal use of racist language. In 2023, Huck Finn still has a presence at the diners: Finn’s grinning visage, rustic fishing pole in hand, appears on signs and is etched into the glass booth dividers. The diner’s most popular menu item is the Becky Thatcher (two eggs, two strips of bacon, two sausages, and two pancakes), so named for another Twain character from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
The name still makes customers chuckle, but many don’t seem to recognize the literary reference, says Demetrios Hiotis. While the novel’s notoriety may have waned, the diner harbors a more contemporary American tale, one rooted in his family’s journey from Greece to the U.S. In the ‘90s, McKinley Park’s Hispanic population surged, and Latinx residents — mostly of Mexican descent — now make up more than half of the neighborhood’s population, according to the latest Census. Their immigrant stories blend with the Hiotis’s, making their way onto the menu via a Mexican omelet with chorizo and jalapeños, along with those of the diners’ longtime employees. Some have worked there for more than 40 years and watched their now-general manager grow from a child to a father of two.
The arrival of the pandemic provided customers an opportunity to show their love for the diner, which reaffirmed ownership’s belief in people’s fundamental goodness. “The neighbors knew we were struggling and wanted to help support the business, even at the worst of times when we had to do curbside pickups and online ordering,” says Demetrios Hiotis.
“I’m forever grateful for that. They knew that we were there for them when they were hungry because that’s what we do — feed people.”