Suzy Panayi | Jeff Manes~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 10, 2013 6:07AM
“They bought a souped-up jitney,
‘Twas a cherry red ‘53...
...C’est la vie, say the old folks,
It goes to show you never can tell.”
— Chuck Berry
When you walk into Suzy’s Diner in Hebron it’s a real blast from the past. The place is adorned with nostalgic Coca-Cola memorabilia, posters of Marilyn Monroe, plastic models of pink Cadillacs and much more. Suzy Panayi, 52, is the owner-operator.
The Big Bopper skillet is my personal fave.
“I was born and raised on the north side of Chicago — Rogers Park,” Panayi began.
You’re probably a Cubs fan.
“Yes, I am.”
Interview’s over. Just kidding. Favorite player when you were a kid?
“Probably Ernie Banks. I used to be a Bleacher Bum. I’d go with my brother and sister and spend the night waiting for opening day bleacher seats.”
At what high school did you attend?
“Sullivan High School. When I was growing up there were a lot of people of Polish and German ancestries.”
“Thornton Community College on the South Side. I have a business degree.”
What kind of name is Panayi?
“Lindberg. Like the aviator, but without the H.”
The restaurant business?
“I grew up in restaurants. My sister owned a restaurant on the north side of Chicago named Kamar’s. I worked there at a young age as a soda jerk — a fountain freak. It was a family restaurant. My mother also worked at a lot of restaurants. My parents had 13 kids. I’m second-to-the-last.”
“I’m also the seventh out of 13 diagnosed with cancer. That’s what took me so long to open this restaurant. I’m a year cancer-free, but six of my brothers and sisters died from cancer.”
What type of cancer did you have?
“Breast cancer — Stage 2. I had a brother who died of brain cancer when he was 31. So, every year is a milestone for me. I’ll see the doctor and do my blood work every three months. I’ll do it for the rest of my life. You have to keep on keepin’ on.”
That’s scary, seven siblings who have had cancer.
“I wonder what we grew up with on the Northside that did that to 13 kids. Water? Pollution? I don’t know. Maybe it was all those good Lake Michigan smelt and perch we ate back in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
How long has Suzy’s Diner been open for business?
“Since June 12.”
Do you cook here?
“Not really. I hired the chefs and gave them my recipes.”
The 1950s decor?
“You have to remember, those siblings of mine who were taking care of me were 10 or 20 years older than I was. They grew up in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. I was around all that. The music, the Hula Hoops. ... I love that era.”
“Leave it to Beaver” days.
“‘The Twilight Zone,’ too. ‘The Honeymooners’ is probably my all-time favorite TV show. I grew up on Elvis. Who didn’t love Elvis?”
Great poster of James Dean. Most people prefer “Rebel Without a Cause” or “East of Eden,” but I always liked “Giant” the best.
“That’s the only one of his three movies I haven’t seen, but I have a customer who is going to lend me the DVD. I can’t wait to see it.”
The turquoise, white and pink colors of this juke joint are quite fifties-ish.
“My father-in-law’s ‘57 Chevy was turquoise and white.”
What are some of the more popular dishes?
“The Ritchie Valens omelette, Big Bopper, Etta James and ‘Wake Up Little Suzy’ skillets are oldies but goodies. Breakfast is our biggest seller because we offer it all day long.”
“The hound dog burger is coming soon.”
With your Chicago roots, you should offer a Chicago-style hot dog and call it the hound dog.
“We do the Vienna dogs, which are Chicago-style.”
Did you move from Chicago to Hebron?
“No, I moved to Hammond first. Then, Munster, Highland, Merrillville, Crown Point and finally Hebron. I came to Indiana when I was 17. I’ve been a Hoosier for a long time. My kids went to Merrillville High School.”
How many employees?
“About 20. We’ll be open on Thanksgiving. I post all my breakfast, lunch and dinner specials everyday on Facebook.”
You have a good location on Ind. 231.
“I wanted to be right in between the schools. The kids stop and order pizzas. This used to be Kelsey’s Steakhouse; they moved because they wanted a liquor license but couldn’t get one because they were only 180 feet from the school.”
“This diner is therapy for me; it keeps me going. I have good days and bad days just like anybody else, but I thank God every morning that I wake up.”
Hey, Daddy-O (term of address), the next time you’re in Hebron and need to refuel (eat), stop on in at Suzy’s Diner. The blankets (sandwiches) are boss (great) and it won’t cost you much bread (money). That’s why the place is really cookin’ (doing well). Dig (understand)?
Until you’ve tried it, you never can tell.