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For Elmwood Lounge, a transformative adieu

Without fanfare, John Gikas turned out the lights and closed the front door of the 92-year-old Elmwood Lounge last week for the last time.

After nearly 43 years of combining cooking, tending bar, waiting on tables and cleaning into 16-hour days, seven days a week, Gikas decided that it was time to do something different.

"I'll miss the people the most, the people you see every day and talk to all the time," said Gikas, who turned 70 in February.

The building at Elmwood Avenue and West Utica Street, which Gikas owns and includes two apartments and four offices, won't be vacant downstairs for long: It will reopen in the coming days as Milkie's on Elmwood, with an emphasis on American food under the ownership of longtime restaurateur Mike Milkie.

Entertainer Lance Diamond, a longtime staple on Saturday nights, will remain, although he will now be performing once a month instead of weekly.

It's a new start for Gikas, the accidental owner who was one of just two to operate the Elmwood Lounge since its doors opened in 1920.

"I come here for a drink one night, a Sunday night, and sit at the bar. The original owner, George Economou, said, 'I'm selling the place,' " said Gikas, who was cooking in a Niagara Falls restaurant at the time.

"I say, 'How much?' And I give him a $500 check, a deposit. I never went in the kitchen -- no place -- just had the drink and bought the place," Gikas said, chuckling at the thought.

He arrived in Buffalo from Greece several years earlier with his two siblings a year after their parents came. Gikas said he inherited a strong work ethic from his father.

"From the day I been to this country, I never call in sick one time. I never miss one day in 54 years," he said.

The exception was an annual, monthlong trip back to Greece.

Gikas' brother Sam was also in the restaurant business, operating King's Court on Delaware Avenue for decades.

Gikas succeeded despite being unable to write English and having minimal reading skills. Because of his strong memory, he had no trouble waiting on large parties and remembering their orders.

His lack of literacy also didn't inhibit him from succeeding in business.

"I'm good with figures. If you're good with figures, you can run anything," Gikas said.

He began thinking of getting out of the day-to-day work grind after his mother, who lived with him and his wife, died two years ago. Now he envisions much more family time.

"I will spend time with my grandkids and my wife, who I never spent any time [with] all these years," he said.

Gikas also owns a number of rental properties that he said will keep him busy.

"I won't be retiring; I'm just taking it easy," he said Monday before acknowledging, "I miss it now already."

Milkie, who turned 77 on Sunday, retired more than a year ago but found that he missed the restaurant business too much.

"I tried to retire, and I just couldn't do it. I couldn't sit home," he said.

So, Milkie decided to open his 15th restaurant instead.

"It's in my blood. I love meeting people and being part of the community," he said.

Milkie's 60-year resume in the restaurant business -- 51 as an owner -- stretches back to the Falling Star restaurant in the Airport Plaza in 1959.

He had a restaurant in the University Plaza for 48 years, under the names Blue Galaxy, Miner's Ten and Bobby McGee's, before closing in 2010. He also ran the Milkie Way Theater in Williamsville, a dinner theater, beginning in the 1960s, and during his heyday operated nine restaurants at the same time.

Milkie's niece, Suzanne Fortushniok, who most recently worked as a chef at Siena Restaurant in Snyder, will be chef and part-owner of Milkie's on Elmwood.

"I'm very proud to be part of the Elmwood Strip," Milkie said. "We're going to make this place very exciting."