Near the corner of Hamilton Avenue and Medill Alley in Northside sits a piece of the American dream. Since its opening in 1967, the Blue Jay Restaurant has, for the most part, remained the same, boasting a nostalgic image and homestyle eats that keep regulars coming back and draws others in to experience the food for the first time.
The walls are still adorned with dark wood paneling, the booths are covered in forest-green vinyl and the tables and lunch counter are topped with vintage teal and white Formica. And, as with any good local diner, there’s Cincinnati-style chili in bowls, on coneys and 3-ways, plus classics like all-day breakfast, double decker sandwiches and homemade pie.
The story behind this neighborhood staple has origins in the small Greek village of Variko, from where two of its founders, Danny Petropoulos and his wife Tina, immigrated in the 1950s. After settling in Cincinnati, Petropoulos took a job making golf clubs at MacGregor Sporting Goods. When the company announced it was relocating to Georgia, though, he decided he would not follow, prompting the couple to secure a different future.
Petropoulos spent his childhood in Istanbul, Turkey, at his father’s seafood restaurant, which became the perfect inspiration. With the help of partner Tom Mihou, the three set their sights on Northside to open their eatery: Blue Jay Restaurant. The name was taken from Petropoulos’ old bowling league.
”I said, ‘This is the location, this is the community, this is the area that I’m going to be successful,’ ” says Petropoulos, who lives in Bridgetown. And he was right — on July 31, Blue Jay celebrated its 50th anniversary.
The milestone was something he hoped for, but did not expect.
“Anytime when we open up the door we were nervous,” Petropoulos says. “How (are) we going to succeed? And the more time was going on, that’s year by year, business was getting better and better. We put (a) lot of hours in. But we didn’t count the hours.”
For daughter Souli Brunson, the celebration means a continuation of family tradition. Days off school and sick days were spent with her parents at the Blue Jay. So when it came time for Petropoulos, who is now in his 80s, to sell the restaurant, she jumped at the opportunity.
“I literally pretty much lived there my whole life. There was no way that I could see it go to anyone else,” she says. “I didn’t realize until that moment how important it was to me — how I had such an attachment to it, from just being here my whole life.”
Brunson’s mother and father often stressed the importance of education and encouraged her to get good grades and pursue a college career, which she did. Originally, it was not in her plan to return to the restaurant, but she appreciated the product of her parents’ hard work and purchased Blue Jay in 2005 — a move which pleased her father, who preferred to keep it in the family.
“Being that my parents are both immigrants, it’s really important. They essentially are the American dream,” Brunson says. “The fact that they were able to open this up and still have it going to this day is pretty amazing. I find myself extremely, extremely lucky to be able to be in this situation and be handed down such a successful, amazing place.”
Though retired, Petropoulos still comes to the restaurant three days a week to make the soups and help out. For father and daughter, the opportunity to work alongside family and employees who’ve become like family is an experience they’ve cherished.
The history of the restaurant, however, extends beyond its doors and into the community where it has flourished. While Cincinnati as a whole has seen a number of filmmakers interested in giving the Queen City screen time, Blue Jay has been featured in two movies as of late: The Old Man and the Gun, a forthcoming film slated for release in 2018 starring Elisabeth Moss, Robert Redford and Casey Affleck; and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the 2017 psychological horror film starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell. But Hollywood buzz is only a small sliver of Northside, one of the city’s most eclectic neighborhoods and one that appreciates its local diner.
“I’ve seen the neighborhood change dramatically in all sorts of ways and shapes and colors,” Brunson says. “I can say that right now is the best it’s ever been since I’ve been here and since I can remember.”
As the demographic shifted and new customers and regulars kept venturing in, Blue Jay made a point to expand its menu, which now features vegetarian options and other new dishes alongside the original fare.
“The residents of Northside are amazing and they’re loyal, and we know them very well — we know them, their families, their children,” Brunson says.
And when you take a stroll down Hamilton Avenue, you discover the connection runs even deeper: Designs by Dana tattoo parlour, owned by Brunson’s inlaws, is just a block away from the restaurant. There, you’ll find Brunson’s husband, Jason, a second-generation tattoo artist, at work.
For the neighborhood, Petropoulos holds immense gratitude. “They’ve been great to us; they made us be there 50 years,” he says. “Northside and the people and the community, they liked us, we like them. And we made our living together. I thank them a lot, I appreciate them a lot.”
With a promising future on the horizon, Blue Jay plans to stay the course. “I think as long as we can continue to make everyone happy and be the family kind of place that we are,” Brunson says, “we’ll still be OK.”
Blue Jay Restaurant
GO: 4154 Hamilton Ave., Northside; CALL: 513-541-0847; INTERNET: searchable on Facebook; HOURS: 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday.