Chris Ioannou (owner) chats with Robin Woods at Montclair House Grill NEIL GRABOWSKY/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

For Montclair Local


Robin Woods is a Montclair girl-about-town, writing about activities, stores, restaurants, and interesting people that catch her eye. She’s written memoirs and personal essays as well as music and fashion columns for various NYC newspapers.

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During a recent visit to Montclair Public Library I noticed an art exhibition by sculptor George Thaddeus Saj, called “Memories.” After looking at the intricate and colorful pieces, I wanted to meet the artist in person. His work spoke to me. We met at the library.


A general surgeon for 31 years, Dr. Saj’s first love was painting, he said. His Ukrainian family exposed him to the arts, theater and politics early on. His mother wanted him to be a doctor, but his father said that he could choose his own path. “My mother told me that I could be any kind of doctor that I wanted,” and that was that.

Dr. Saj came to the U.S. In 1949 after attending school in Germany and Ukraine. Studying biology at Dartmouth College, he went on to Columbia medical school. Until 2004, he practiced general surgery at Mountainside and Morristown Memorial Hospitals. Being on call around the clock and performing over 6,000 surgeries during his career left him little time to pursue his love of painting.

When he moved to Montclair in 1991, he began making his assemblies (what he calls his sculptures) from discarded hospital instruments. Stethoscopes form faces on portraits of people and animals, which are put on wood or metal surfaces with nails and multi-purpose glue. Sculpture pieces are painted with oil or acrylics, and placed with precision. It’s easy to see how his finely honed skills as a surgeon come into play with his works of art. “Art saved me from going bananas during retirement,” he said.

George Saj sits beneath his self portrait at his art exhibit at Montclair Public Library. NEIL GRABOWSKY/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

“Memories” showcases some of the hundreds of pieces he’s created over the years. His pieces are brightly colored, with depictions of expressive eyes, and lyrical or humorous explanations. About “The Wood Nymph,” which enchanted me so much that it is now part of my art collection, A card near the sculpture reads, “In the forest through the trees, you might catch a glimpse of wayward magic, or of some shifting leaves. Wood nymphs splashing in a brook or stealthily peeking through the trees. Dryad or hamadryad none too sure, but you will know her by her flora, her fauna and the whisper in the breeze.”

His next solo exhibition is at The Ukrainian Institute, New York City, May 10-June 9, 2 East 79th St., NYC.

I’m not native to Montclair, and still miss my hometown, good old NYC, and its proliferation of Greek diners. Always ready for a good cup of coffee and a snack between interviews, I stopped into Montclair House Grill on Church Street. When I first moved to town, I was homesick for familiar places. Former Town Councilor Roger S. Terry, then a Montclair Police Department detective, suggested that I try out what was  then The Midtown Diner. Bingo!

All it took was a tuna melt with fries, and I felt much better.

Chris Ioannou and his wife Theakla opened Montclair House Grill in March of 2018. When I asked Chris why he chose that location, he told me that “the business was for sale, and I always wanted to open a diner.” He has extensive experience in business and marketing, while Theakla was a banker for 20 years. Once she lost her job, she looked forward to spending more time with Chris.“We have no problem working together. We communicate well,” she said.

Robin Woods reverses roles with Chris Ioannou and Thekla Sergiou (owners) at Montclair House Grill. KATE ALBRIGHT/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

The space was already fitted out as a restaurant, and they kept the same staff and made a few décor changes. The biggest change came to the menu. Once large and heavy, it had dozens of categories for breakfast, lunch, dinner or just a quick cuppa. Chris felt that he “didn’t want the menu to be so busy. I wanted it to be clean.” Now that it has been edited down, you can find sandwich choices in one place, rather than many pages of paninis and wraps. You can also find salads, burgers and whatever you’re craving.





I attempted working as a waitress at Montclair House Grill for a little while, well aware that balance and hand/eye coordination are not my fortés, I turned the tables on Chris and Theakla by serving them at the counter. Grill waitress Stephanie Cortes gave me a quick tutorial, and told me that she simply writes orders down on a small pad before entering them into a computer terminal, using simple abbreviations, such as EOE for eggs over easy. I did a good job being welcoming and friendly with my first (and last) customers, making sure that the counter was clean and had set ups of napkins and utensils. Chris prompted me to give him a menu and treat him like a regular customer.

No worries about a new career path for me.

If you’re looking for a revolving case of desserts to tempt you, you won’t find it here. There are three or four choices of cakes and puddings that are made in-house daily, and huge homemade muffins. I am addicted to their moist bran muffin with raisins, which \ tastes delicious rather than gritty.

The best news is that they don’t charge extra for almond milk for your coffee. That’s almost unheard of in town, and is much appreciated. It’s the little things that make a difference.


In this article:

  • George Saj, Sculptor


  • Montclair House Grill

12 Church St., 973-509-9600