By Frankie Schneckloth
After decades of feeding and entertaining Cedar Rapidians, chef Basil Hadjis passed away last month at the age of 62. Owner of the Vernon Inn, Fourth Street Diner and Sweet Basil’s Pizza Pie and Basil’s Food, Hadjis was a mainstay of the local culinary scene. Most recently, Hadjis could be found at the Mount Vernon Road Hy-Vee, preparing meals at the Market Grille.
Born in 1955 in Cedar Rapids, Hadjis attended Washington High School and afterwards pursued culinary aspirations, working in regional restaurants before returning to Cedar Rapids to open one of his own. Armed with family recipes and the help of his brothers Demetrios and Alex Hadjis, Basil opened The Vernon Inn on his 21st birthday. As any Cedar Rapids native will tell you, the Vernon Inn was a institution on the city’s southeast side, serving Greek favorites such as gyros, moussaka, spanakopita and saganaki for 36 years before it closed in 2012. The warm, welcoming atmosphere and staff coupled with great food made it the type of place that was comfortable for any occasion.
The Vernon Inn was common thread throughout my childhood. My parents, both foodservice sales reps, would often bring me along as they made their rounds checking in with accounts. My childhood was punctuated with memories of chefs and waitstaff and dimly lit dining rooms before service. At the Vernon Inn, I could look forward to black licorice doled out from the kitchen.
The restaurant hosted numerous dinners for my family over the years and we were often generously treated to something special from the kitchen –– as a 9-year-old diner, the flaming saganaki prepared for us was the pinnacle of culinary achievement. And as I grew up and exercised my independence in high-school, “the Greek Place” served as a testing ground for maturity, allowing my crew of friends to order countless plates of gyros and fries and drain their soda supplies before jetting off to school dances.
The draw of the restaurant was obviously about more than just the food and atmosphere –– it was about Hadjis himself. His energy, his charisma, his rapport with patrons were a constant.
“The Vernon Inn was a very special place and home for so many customers that came religiously –– they knew the family, they knew the staff –– they took pride in being part of the Vernon Inn. That stemmed from Basil; he knew everyone and always had a smile and great energy,” remembers former Vernon Inn employee Tim Oathout, co-owner and head chef of Zeppelins Bar & Grill.
“I got my start in my career at the Vernon Inn,” Oathout explained. “ I feel very fortunate that I was brought into that restaurant at the start. Basil taught me that if you are passionate about what you do and the people who are doing it for you, they turn around and run with your passion.”
Tony Morrow, store director of the 1st Avenue Hy-Vee store in Iowa City, hired Hadjis for the Mount Vernon store in 2014 and remarked, “He was one of the best hires I’ve ever made; a perfect fit, really. He was an exciting and charismatic guy who was all about food and family.”
Together the pair envisioned regular Greek dinners as an outlet for the cooking Hadjis was known for at the Vernon Inn. “People missed his food, they grew up on it — two or three generations passed through his restaurants. It was nostalgic for them,” Morrow said. Hadjis’ monthly dinners regularly sold out.
It wasn’t just the customers who enjoyed those monthly dinners.
“Basil derived a great sense of pleasure from watching people enjoy his food,” Morrow said.
Hadjis’ personality was also a draw at the Mount Vernon Road Hy-Vee, just as it had been for decades at the Vernon Inn.
“I could be gone for a month and no one would notice,” Morrow remembered joking with Hadjis. “But if Basil was gone for a few days, people would wonder where he was.”
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 235.