Column: Farewell to the Parthenon

Closing of Ann Arbor restaurant ends long tradition among friends
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Ann Arbor’s Parthenon Restaurant closed last week after almost 40 years at the corner of Main and Liberty. For me and my friends, it marked more than the passing of a favorite spot, but the end of a time-honored ritual.

On our last visit, we filed in, and walked to our favorite table in the back. A little warmer, and we’d sit outside, but it was still March, so whatya gonna do? The owners and waiters nodded. They’ve seen us more than a hundred times. When I needed to sell ads for the Huron Hockey program to help fund the team, the Parthenon signed up every time – something the chain coffee shop across the street would never consider.

BW and I started coming here in the fall of our sophomore year in high school. We both ran cross-country – a near-death experience – but that meant we could eat anything, and not gain a pound. For us, that meant a jumbo coke, a basket of fries, and two gyros – each.

We’ve since added a few friends from our high school days: Scotty, a hockey teammate of mine; TP, the tennis captain; Sevvie, a soccer star; and Barney, whom I was nice enough to drive to practice every day, so he could take my job. I was cool like that.

We have no need for menus, but no need for two gyros each anymore, either. The lightweights get salads, and we all get gyros. TP once made the double mistake of looking at the menu and ordering a shish-ka-bob – who knew they even made those? – for which he is still roundly chastised. Mainly by me.

The highlight, always, is the saganaki. The waiters know we tip in direct proportion to the height of the flame they create, so they douse the cheese in brandy. Then the poor guy lights it, it goes “whooof!” and creates a mini mushroom cloud. I know a few waiters who no longer have eyebrows.

Ostensibly, we meet to celebrate someone’s birthday, but being guys, we’re lucky if we get together within a month of the actual day. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who knows even half the birthdays, anyway.

We still recognize the division between the four former high school seniors at our table, and the two lowly juniors. We’ve been doing this for well over a decade, but it only occurred to us about five years ago that the juniors might also have birthdays. And, as it turned out, they did – but we usually fail to remember them. Because they’re juniors.

Think that’s ridiculous? It gets worse. We often debate the merits of Tappan Junior High versus Clague, which is – and I say this with complete journalistic objectivity – the greatest junior high school of all time. The Tappan guys do have an ace: they played with quarterback Jim Harbaugh, who went on to become Michigan’s Big Ten MVP, an NFL star, and the San Francisco 49ers’ head coach. BW and TP were his tailbacks at Tappan, ultimately replaced by NFL Hall of Famers Walter Payton and Marshall Faulk.

We can still recount football, baseball and basketball games we played against each other years ago – the most pointless conversation anyone is having anywhere in town.

Well, almost. We also repeat stories so many times, everybody at the table can finish them, like an ancient tribe passing on its oral traditions.

Take the homecoming queen who rejected both Scotty and BW in the same month. Scotty was kissing her on her front step when – pardon me in advance – he farted.

“Could she hear it?” we asked.

I could,” he said. “And my ears were just four inches from hers.”

A few weeks later, BW dropped her off, and didn’t make any moves. But when he tried to drive away, his car got stuck in the snow. He had to ring her doorbell and ask her to come help dig him out – thereby erasing any question whatsoever that it was, indeed, their last date.

The stories go on and on, and in this way, we share our innermost feelings.

Women never join us, but it’s not because they’re not welcome. Our girlfriends and fiancés and wives all wonder about these lunches, and what we talk about, until they come see for themselves, and discover that we’re morons. None of them have ever asked to return.

The baskets get removed, the bill comes, and it’s time for us to say goodbye – not just to each other, but to this old friend, the Parthenon, forever.

We could go somewhere else, and I suppose we’ll have to soon enough, but it won’t be the same. Where are we going to find a place that plays lyre music and ignites dairy products? There are fancier restaurants just down the street, but none will be more comfortable for us.

So, no. Wives and girlfriends, you’re not missing out on anything.

But we will.

About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” He also co-authored “A Legacy of Champions,” and provided commentary for “Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward, and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Football Game,” which has been airing on various stations in Michigan and nationally.

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  1. By TJ
    April 6, 2012 at 9:47 am | permalink

    I’m glad I heard this on the radio this morning, because your delivery made it that much more enjoyable and poignant. But I’m also glad I read this version, because a few bits were missing from the radio piece.

  2. By Eric
    April 9, 2012 at 8:07 am | permalink

    The gyros there was good and consistent but they always had that horrible bouzouki music on at about 200 decibels.