UPDATE: Myra's Dionysus may have a potential buyer and at that buyer's request, the restaurant will remain open from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sept. 2-7, according to its Facebook page.
CINCINNATI -- Myra Griffon is not Greek.
She’s never had any professional training as a chef.
And, before January 28, 1977 —the day she opened Myra’s Dionysus in a former coffee shop at 121 Calhoun Street near the University of Cincinnati — she had never even worked in a restaurant before.
None of these things really matter any more, though. Because Myra Griffon — a Kansas native who learned to cook in the 4H Club —has owned and operated one of Clifton’s most beloved ethnic restaurants for 37 years.
And, this Sunday, just about five months shy of her 84th birthday, she’s hanging up her chef’s hat for good.
In hindsight, her original plan seems more like a whim. A divorced mother of two living in Detroit in the late 1970s, Griffon was a school teacher when she came up with the idea to open a Greek restaurant.
“I went to Chicago to visit my daughter who was in school at the time and we ate gyros, and I said: ‘These are so good! Why can’t you get them in other places?’”
The self-described “Greek in the heart” (she’s actually English and German) decided right then and there that sharing gyros with the world was her calling. Nevermind that she didn’t know the first thing about Greek food or starting restaurants. She did know two things: She wanted to open her eatery next to a university; and she didn’t want to do it in Detroit – “there were too many Greek people there who knew what they were doing.”
Griffon initially had a business partner but that fell through. Undeterred she moved forward on her own: “My mother used to say I was like a bulldog; if I got my teeth in something I didn’t let go.”
For reasons that remain murky to her today, she selected a leased row house just steps from UC’s Clifton campus as her location. She said she had been to Cincinnati in the 1960s, but she can't recall what drew her back to the city nearly 40 years ago.
Detroit To Cincinnati Commute
For two years, Griffon taught in Detroit on weekdays and ran the restaurant here “on weekends and holidays.” She split gyro meat deliveries, which were imported frozen from Chicago, with Sebastian’s on Glenway Avenue. She bought the Calhoun Street building that she’d been leasing.
A brush with cancer forced her to re-evaluate her workload in 1979 and she decided to leave teaching behind and move to Cincinnati fulltime to run the restaurant.
In addition to running Myra’s, she opened a Bed and Breakfast on McMillan in the early '80s, and she and her daughter helped co-found the Women’s Theatre of Cincinnati.
We were “a group of women who wrote, produced and acted in plays about our lives. Our most famous one was called ‘No Body’s Perfect,’” she said.
She had grown discouraged by 1985, after the theater group disbanded and seven years after the B&B was torn down to make way for a the Cinco Credit Union. Plus, she was “getting tired of everything we served” at Myra’s, where the menu was still primarily Greek.
“So I closed the restaurant for 2 or 3 months and I went traveling,” Griffon said. “I went to some restaurants in New York and California and I saw things.”
She returned to Cincinnati with a new vision for Myra’s: “That’s when I put in the patio and the deli case.”
That’s also when she began expanding her menu, which eventually grew to include exotic specialties like West African Groundnut stew, caramelized onion hummus, beet caviar, saag tofu, gado gado, mole poblano, imam biladi, and vegan lavender and chocolate cheesecake.
Customers have always loved her spanakopita, which is a well-known Greek spinach pie. They've also loved her Thai pumpkin soup.
“When I first made it I wasn’t sure what people would think of it,” she said. “But it’s been popular from the beginning.”
The food was always important, but the people who worked and dined at Myra’s were what made the place so special, Griffon said.
Jane Goodall visited once, and Thayne Maynard, she said, is a regular. She estimates, too, that more than 500 people have worked for her over the years, saying “they come and go a lot because they’re in school and they graduate.”
Two alums even opened their own restaurants —Take the Cake and Honey, both of which were Northside Cincinnati favorites that have closed.
Myra’s – both the business and the building — are for sale, but so far no one’s stepped forward, she said. According to a real estate listing, the building, which also includes six apartments, is on the market for $400,000. The business is a separate purchase.
She said cooking is still fun, but her decision to retired was more physical: “I can’t really stand very well anymore."
Griffon isn’t entirely sure what new adventures await.
“My employees have decided they’re going to help me write a cookbook,” she said, so all of those exotic recipes can live on.
Other than that, she added: “I’m going to wait to see what kind of doors open to me.”