The Lincoln Restaurant in Chicago is closing on Dec. 29, 2013, after over 40 years in business -- good news for retiring owner, John Athans, but sad news for regulars who've viewed the restaurant as a family destination. (Phil Velasquez, Chicago Tribune)

Perched atop a dark brown pole on North Lincoln Avenue, a red, white and blue sign with President Abraham Lincoln's image has greeted newcomers and regulars to Lincoln Restaurant for decades.

The mom-and-pop diner and its Civil War theme thrived for years in the North Center neighborhood, but it has not been able to survive the threat of outside competition and changes in consumer preferences.

On Sunday, the Lincoln will fire up its grills one last time. It will not be easy putting the restaurant to rest, but the closing was a long time coming, owner Tony Athans said.

"I've had so many people calling and asking, 'Why are you closing?'" he said. "And I said, 'Well, everything comes to an end.'"

Athans' father, John, remembers the day he and his wife opened the restaurant, at a time when an ice cream soda cost 15 cents and an order of ham and eggs cost 35 cents.

John Athans immigrated to the U.S. from Greece in 1952.

He worked for a lunch counter at a local pharmacy for a few years until he saved up enough money to open his own snack shop on North Lincoln Avenue. The inspiration for the Lincoln's name came from its location, John Athans said.

In 1970, he and his staff moved to the approximately 250-seat diner they operate now.

John Athans and his wife, Loula, tried to split the work equally. He managed the kitchen. She was responsible for the restaurant's front end and customer service. Their four sons would bus tables and serve customers.

Loula Athans was the life of the restaurant. She made an active effort to get to know employees and customers, sometimes inviting people to her home for Christmas or Thanksgiving meals, Tony Athans said. The family even went on vacation with some of the customers they got to know on a more personal basis.

Tony Athans graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1985 and, after working for a few other restaurants, decided to return home and help his parents run the Lincoln.

He revamped the menu using his newly acquired professional training and made the Civil War theme more prominent, adding dishes like the Honest Abe burger and the Robert E. Lee omelet to the menu. More Lincoln memorabilia accumulated on the restaurant's walls.

Visitors started joking about getting a John Wilkes booth or asked to sit near the "Penny wall," which is dotted with about $75 in pennies as another salute to Lincoln.

Although the Lincoln Restaurant has retained its charm over the years, customers' changing dining preferences and increasing competition from larger restaurant chains have made it harder for the small, family-run business to operate, Tony Athans said. Fewer people come in on the weekdays now; before, the restaurant would be busy throughout the week.

In recent years, the diner's challenges have included a foreclosure case regarding the building. Tony Athans declined to discuss the litigation in detail, but said the time was right to close the restaurant.

Loula Athans died in July 2011 after battling pancreatic cancer, and things haven't been the same since.

"There's a void. … You're here at work, you put in the hours, but there's something missing," Tony Athans said.

He also wants his 82-year-old father to enjoy his later years without having to worry about the restaurant.

"It's a lot of hard work and the rewards are not the same as they were in the old days," he said as he sat next to his dad. Occasionally, he would get up from the table to help seat customers or chat with those who were leaving. Some of them he knew by name and others, by what they like to order.

Since the Athanses officially announced this month that the Lincoln was closing, there has been an outpouring of support from the community.