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Drunk Food: The 1 A.M. Gyro at Uncle Nick’s

A roving portrait of late-night cravings. Up now, a Rust Belt Greek joint that’s been serving a crowd of regulars since 1974.

uncle nicks gyro illinois

“See you next gyros . . .” declares the billboard above Uncle Nick’s, a Greek joint in downtown Rockford, Illinois, the Rust Belt city where I grew up. Around the country, “gyros” has countless pronunciations. You-rohs is ubiquitous; heer-rohs affects a knowing foreignness; jih-rohs intentionally bungles. But in my hometown, we say year-rohs, rendered twangy by a decades-old signage pun.

Just before midnight on a Friday in July, Uncle Nicks’ shabby corner lot is packed with rusty old Chevys, flatbed trucks and immaculate SUVs. A man in scrubs, just off a shift at the hospital down the road, sips a soft drink from a wax-coated paper cup and leaves with a quarter-pound gyros cheeseburger, while a woman in a tie-dyed rainbow bandanna picks up cheese fries, two gyros and jalapeño poppers in a grease-speckled brown bag. People are polite but not inclined to chat, everyone on the way to somewhere else. Some people sit in their cars, windows up, AC cranked, rather than waiting in Nicks’ tiny takeout vestibule. Others crowd along the short stretch of counter inside. A line snakes toward the cash register from the glass door.

Uncle Nick’s was opened in 1974 by Nick Efthimiou, who is rarely around these days. A squat building painted white with a royal-blue butterfly roof, the structure is oddly juxtaposed against the more historic neighborhood mileu. From the start, it served up fried mushrooms, fries, spinach pie and its locally legendary gyros. Garlicky lamb and beef slices smothered in tzatziki and topped with raw onions on a lightly fried pita, this is food that will leave a scent in your car for the next week, so salty it makes your fingers swell for days. But late at night, when inhibitions are low, it can also become irresistible.

I think of gyros as hangover-prevention food—an opinion no doubt fueled by my father’s habit of stopping at Uncle Nick’s after playing gigs with his band. My stepmom, the designated driver, would pull into a spot at the other Nicks’ outpost, on the opposite side of town. French fries were generally consumed on the ride home before they wilted. Later, as a teenager, when I heard the groan of the garage door late at night, I might wander out into the kitchen to find my family standing at the counter, unwrapping Nicks’ telltale silver foil. It was carryout to snarf, share and lament the morning after.

My mother remembers going for gyros in the ’70s, when she was in her twenties, after the bars and dance clubs closed. Some of those spots are still open, but in the 1980s, the area around Uncle Nick’s went from late-night hangout to crime zone. Even as the surrounding historic corridor has experienced a recent wave of revitalization—waterfront brewpubs and weekend farmers’ markets—Uncle Nicks’ block has yet to see the same transition or carefree foot traffic.

“The neighborhood has gotten worse,” says a cashier with a gray-flecked mustache who is reluctant to talk but reveals he’s been working there for nearly 20 years. Outside, a squad car lingers beneath the billboard. And yet, Uncle Nick’s fans and loyalists remain undeterred. In Rockford, “See you next gyros” is just another way of saying, “We know you’ll be back soon.”

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Tagged: drunk food, Illinois

Elizabeth Kiefer is a freelance editor and cultural journalist. Her work appears in national newspapers and magazines as well as all over the Internet. Raised in the Midwest, she lives with her husband and many plants in Brooklyn.