Food News

Despite Changes, Chef Zorba's Remains a Congress Park Staple With an Old Soul

The "Breakfast is Good" writing on the wall is throwback to a sign that hung over the diner's original counter in the 1980s.
The "Breakfast is Good" writing on the wall is throwback to a sign that hung over the diner's original counter in the 1980s. Molly Martin
As I walk into Chef Zorba's on a Thursday just before the lunch rush, an employee immediately greets me and asks if I'm dining solo. After telling her I'm meeting with owner Karen LuKanic, she disappears into the kitchen to find her. Then another employee asks if I've been helped. Then another. By the fourth, one employee jokes to another, "We've all tried to help her!"

Finally LuKanic appears, her hand bandaged after recent surgery that doesn't appear to have slowed her down. "Your staff is really enthusiastic," I comment, when she and I sit down at a table in the back corner.

"I have a great team," she replies. "Everybody else is suffering in this labor shortage, but we have to add people because of our volume."

LuKanic took over this 43-year-old Greek diner in Congress Park in 2018 after a career working for corporate restaurants, including her last gig as chief marketing officer for the Palm in Las Vegas. She's faced some big hurdles since jumping into ownership. The first was persuading the neighborhood — which includes many longtime regulars — that she wouldn't be making any huge changes to the soul of the place.

But there have been changes. In January 2020, she made the call to drop dinner service, primarily because of the minimum-wage increase at the time. (Dinner is now back.) And then two months later, the pandemic hit. In June 2020, LuKanic made the decision to move forward with renovation plans that included knocking down a dividing wall that once separated the smoking and non-smoking sections in order to have a better setup for social-distancing requirements. "If we'd tried to do six-foot distancing, we would have ended up with like eighteen seats," she explains.
click to enlarge
Chicken lemon rice soup is the ultimate comfort food.
Molly Martin
The storefront wall was also taken down — a tough call, but one that LuKanic made because she felt strongly that adding a takeout window was essential. At the time, no one knew what the future of indoor dining would be. "They knocked down the wall and discovered that the footing of the building was dust and the corner support beam was completely rusted," she recalls. "They had to re-engineer the entire building. It was a crazy time, but at that point, we'd pulled the wall off. We couldn't be like, 'Put it back up.'"

The $60,000 project suddenly became a $100,000 project, but LuKanic says the addition of the window "saved our lives," allowing the business to continue to collect revenue through the second indoor-dining shutdown in late 2020.

But even through all of that, LuKanic's biggest challenge as an owner has been creating the type of culture she envisioned. "I wanted to create a culture that felt like a place I'd want to work," she says, as I dig into a bowl of thick and comforting chicken lemon rice soup. "It took me four years to get there, but now everyone relies on each other. Everybody gets along, and they support each other. It took a while to get there — that was the biggest surprise. But if I had to do it again, I'd do it the same way, because I've learned so much."
click to enlarge
Gyros are a staple at Chef Zorba's.
Molly Martin
Another lesson: the strength of community. "We have a lot of older people who eat here from the neighborhood, and they were more isolated than everybody else [in 2020]," LuKanic explains. In order to support them, she implemented a program in which customers can purchase a meal for a senior for $10, which the Zorba's team then delivers to people living in affordable senior housing in the neighborhood. "We're approaching 20,000 meals delivered to seniors in the last two years," she says of the program, which has continued.

While the renovation met with a little pushback at first, ultimately changes like that and the senior meals program will help cement the new owner's right to be part of this neighborhood. Chef Zorba's is on a block where time seems almost to have stood still: A few doors down is Shells and Sauce, which was opened in 2007 by George Pappas, the son of Chef Zorba's founder, Alex Pappas; Peter's Chinese, on the corner across the street, has been open since 1985.
click to enlarge
Baklava ice cream is a sweet way to end a meal at Chef Zorba's.
Molly Martin
As LuKanic and I talk, the restaurant begins to fill. A four-top of twenty-somethings mulls over the options while an older woman greets a man about the same age at another, larger table in the middle of the restaurant. "They're having a high school reunion," LuKanic tells me of the group, which grows to about ten. "They're from the Manual High School class of 1960."

I end my meal with a scoop of ice cream studded with baklava that's made in-house (the ice cream itself is made by Nuggs on East Colfax, and this flavor will be available there this summer, too). LuKanic says goodbye and goes back to greeting guests and trying to help her staff. They, in turn, keep refusing her offers, telling her they've got it...and then asking the next customer if they can help.

This customer leaves satisfied, and happy that Denver still has spots like Chef Zorba's.

Chef Zorba's is located at 2626 East 12th Avenue and is open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. For more information, visit chefzorbas.com.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Molly Martin is the Westword Food & Drink editor. She’s been writing about the dining scene in Denver since 2013, and was eating her way around the city long before that. She enjoys long walks to the nearest burrito joint and nights spent sipping cocktails on Colfax.
Contact: Molly Martin