Greek-American restaurants

GreekrestaurantMarlboroMA

Ethnic restaurants are generally seen as places where people from cultures outside the U.S. provide meals similar to what they ate in their homelands. A high degree of continuity between restaurant owners, cooks, and cuisines is presumed, as in: the Chinese run Chinese restaurants in which Chinese cooks prepare Chinese dishes.

Questions are sometimes raised about whether, for example, Chinese restaurants in America have adapted to American consumer’s tastes to the point where the Chinese cuisine is not “authentic,” but few question how obviously true or historically accurate it is to assume that Chinese always cooked or served Chinese food.

History is rarely tidy. Chinese, Germans, and Italians cooked French food. Germans ran English chop houses. And people of almost all ethnicities — Irish, Italian, German, Croatian, Greek — cooked American food and owned American restaurants.

GreekPaul'sLuncheonette233Greek immigrants, in fact, have been especially inclined to run American restaurants which serve mainstream American food, with little suggestion of the Mediterranean. Typically they’ve been  the independent quick lunches, luncheonettes, coffee shops, and diners that are open long hours, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner to working people. Many have been run under business names such as Ideal, Majestic, Elite, Cosmopolitan, Sanitary, Purity, or Candy Kitchen, rather than the proprietor’s name.

The emphasis on names suggesting quality or cleanliness is explained by the tendency of Americans in the early 20th century to brand Greek-run eateries as “greasy spoons” or “holes in the wall.” A negative attitude to Greek eating places is evident in the following piece of rhyme published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1926 entitled “Where Greek Meets Greek”:

The other day I wandered in where angels fear to tread –
I mean the well known Greasy Spoon, where hungry gents are fed;
Where eats is eats and spuds is spuds, and ham is ham what am –
And the pork in the chicken salad is honest-to-goodness lamb.

GreekConstantineDrive-In

Certainly there were substandard Greek restaurants, but I’ve found that Greek-American proprietors had a propensity to plow profits into modern equipment and fixtures whenever possible.

Greek immigrants showed strong affinity with the restaurant business since the beginning of the 20th century when they began coming to the U.S. in large numbers. The reason for this is often attributed to a lack of English skills, but the first Greek restaurants, actually coffeehouses where patrons could linger, probably had more to do with the absence of women among early Greek migrants. Coffeehouses furnished community. Although in big Eastern cities many Greek restaurants continued to focus on Greek immigrants, many enterprising Greeks took the step of expanding beyond their compatriots. Some, such as Charles Charuhas who established the Washington, D.C. Puritan Dairy Lunch in 1906, were expanding or transitioning from the confectionery and fruit business.

While heavily invested in the New England lunch room business, especially in Providence RI and Lowell MA, Greek immigrants spread to many regions of the U.S, bringing restaurants to the restaurant-starved South. It is impressive that a Raleigh-based Greek trio opened its 15th restaurant in North Carolina as early as 1909. At that time, Greeks were said to be “invading” the lunch room trade in Chicago, operating about 400 places. Because of the simplicity of American cuisine, it was said that two months spent shadowing an American cook was all it took for Greek restaurateurs to pick up the necessary skills.

GreekTorchofAcropolisDallasOther successful Greek restaurateurs of the past century included John Raklios who at one point owned a chain of a couple dozen lunch rooms in Chicago. In New York City Bernard G. Stavracos ran the first-class restaurant The Alps on West 58th, established in 1907. The Demos Cafe in Muskegon MI was one of that city’s leading establishments. In Dallas The Torch of the Acropolis (pictured) had a 36-year-long run, closing in 1984, while the College Candy Kitchen was an institution in Amherst MA.

The children of successful Greek restaurant owners often preferred professional careers, but a new wave of Greek immigrants arrived after WWII, gravitating to diners, particularly it seems, in New Jersey. In 1989 the author of the book Greek Americans wrote that according to his estimate about 20% of the members of the National Restaurant Association had Greek surnames. And, as if demonstrating a flair for adaptation, according to a 1990 study, Greek-Americans were then dominating Connecticut’s pizza business.

GreekdinerDrimonesBrosNJ

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

35 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

35 responses to “Greek-American restaurants

  1. Lillian

    I worked at a Greek diner on St. George’s Avenue in Rahway, or possibly Colonia, New Jersey during the 1960’s. I think it was called The Four Seasons. Three brothers ran the show, and it was a great place. Could someone send me information about the name of the family and the brothers as my memory has dimmed.

  2. My grandfather ran a restaurant in St. Louis from the 1930s to the 1950s. His name was Demetrios Pelekanos (Americanized to Jim Pelican), and the restaurant was Pelican’s Restaurant, located on South Grand Ave. My only knowledge is from the family, so it might be greatly exaggerated, but it was supposedly one of the top three restaurants at that time. They were famous from Steaks, Seafood and Turtle Soup, it’s recipe was secret and went with the cook. I’d appreciate if you knew any information about the restaurant or its reputation.

    • I found a listing for the restaurant in a 1942 St. Louis directory — at 2254-56 South Grand, but I have never heard of it. I don’t find anything when searching for the name which leads me to believe it probably was more of a neighborhood lunchroom than a famed restaurant. I also found a listing for Jas. Pelican in a 1930 directory. At that time he evidently was the proprietor of the Conservatory Candy Shop, no address given unfortunately. I wonder if he expanded his candy shop into a lunchroom? That would not have been an unusual move around that time when nationally manufactured packaged candy was taking business away from local candy makers.

      • He had a candy & tobacco store first, across the street from the restaurant he would later open up.

      • For some reason this morning I suddenly remembered the neon Pelican’s sign on South Grand (this would have been the 1970s or 1980s)! I never went to the restaurant, but now that I recall the sign I am sure it was more than a neighborhood lunchroom, maybe not in the “top three” category but probably a popular dinner spot for a lot of St. Louisans over the decades.

  3. Anonymous

    The name of that restaurant in Brookings was “Mike’s Eat Shoppe”. It was on Main street, I believe next to the theater and a dept store maybe? It belonged to my grandparents, Mike and Helen Efthimiou. I remember going there as a child too….the best burgers, pork chops, potatoes and french fries, red booths that people sat in, my grandmothers homemade thousand island dressing, the beautiful carved wood bar, the fountain drinks and ice cream and the small candy rack at the end of the bar. And who can forget the main waitress there….Shorty! She was awesome! It was a great place filled with great memories for me and my brother.

  4. Steve Frangos

    Margaret is referring to the “Peloponnesos” restaurant cited in Charles C Moskos,’ “Greek Americans: Struggle and Success”, 2nd ed. (New Brunswick: Transaction Pubs., 1989) on page 123. If you follow the footnotes the late Dr. Moskos, was himself skeptical of this early date, but was drawing upon an earlier Greek-language historical account published by Bobbis Malafouris in 1948. Moskos goes on to say he believes this restaurant on Roosevelt Street was the one yet another historian Thomas Burgess described being there in the 1880s in his Greeks in America (Boston; Sherman, French & Co., 1913) and that Malafouris just got his dates wrong.

      • Steve Frangos

        No problem. Your site is an excellent source for anyone looking for the history of restaurants in the USA!

    • Margaret

      Wow! Yes, I think the dates are wrong too — I think the restaurant happened in the 1880s. I’m going to do some research at the NY Public Library next week. Thank you so much for these book references.

      • Steve Frangos

        Good hunting. 

        It’s not impossible that a Greek operated a restaurant in NYC at that early date. Some Greeks, predominately import/export merchants and sailors, were in NYC by the 1820s. No published source I am aware of asserts that this restaurant was established to serve only Greeks.

        Keep me posted on your progress.

        All the best,

        S  

  5. Margaret

    I’m trying to trace my relative Spiros Bazounos, who family legend has it opened the first Greek restaurant in America, the Peloponnesos, on Roosevelt St. in lower Manhattan, in 1857.

    • I don’t know of that restaurant or of any Greek restaurants of that early date.

      • Margaret

        Thanks for such a quick answer! I was so excited to discover your blog, I think I sent that first request sort of unfinished. You seem to be a font of information, and I’m glad to find this site. My relative may actually have opened the restaurant sometime between 1880 and 1890 — our history is a little unclear. It was renamed Hellas in 1907. Anything…?

      • Sorry, can’t find that either. If you are in NYC, I would suggest going to the NYPL and looking through old directories, though if you found anything it would only give you street numbers. It’s possible that’s all that remains.

  6. Anonymous

    How bout the 12th street grill in Wheeling WV?

  7. Patricia Sambo

    Hello, I wonder if you have any information about the early 20th century Boston restaurants and lunch rooms that my Greek immigrant grandfather, his brothers, and cousins operated. From business directories I know of a Rockland Café, LeClair Lunch, The Plakias Dairy Co., Inc., The Plakias Lunch Co., Inc., The Splendid, The Ideal, and “The New Plakias Restaurant.” I suspect a franchise to George and Thomas Plakias and another to Apostolos and Nicholas D. Plakias. Do you know anything of these places? Were they all lunch rooms? I also found a North Shore Hotel Co., incorporated by Nicholas Plakias and wonder if that materialized. Your posts are wonderful!!! Thanks for your efforts.

    • I don’t know anything about them but they sound as though they followed the typical pattern of Greek immigrant family businesses then, yet were more successful than most. I found little advertisements from 1906 that makes the LeClair Lunch (in the banking district) and the Rockland Cafe (A. Plakias, 351A Columbus) sound like lunch rooms. The LeClair advertises its coffee and the Rockland its combination breakfasts. I would guess their patrons were business people and people staying in hotels. I see that there are a couple of articles in the Boston Globe (which I didn’t access) that refer to run-ins with authorities, over sugar during WWI and selling inferior cream in 1912. Other than the directories you found, there may not be a whole lot of information available.

  8. Mary Ruffin

    “It is impressive that a Raleigh-based Greek trio opened its 15th restaurant in North Carolina as early as 1909.” can you tell me more about them?

    • The only additional information I have in my notes is their names: brothers Gus and Jim Lamposi and George Anagastapas. The newspaper article also commended them for running restaurants that were “conspicuous for the able and clean manner in which they are operated.”

  9. gina

    Searching for my blood lines. My uncle was “King” George Charuhas (cheroukas) in Chicago, Illinois. In 1920s he was shot to death in his coffee house on halsted street. My grandfather Harry was his brother. Any info would be appreciated.

    • frank kakouros

      Did you get any more information on you your uncle? I am doing research on Nick the Greek, the gambler, I believe he was friend of your uncle.

  10. Stephen Cusulos

    To anonymous: What were the names of other Greek owned restaurants you might know of in South Dakota?

    • Murphy

      Dear Stephen, I’m pretty sure the owners of at least one of the two pizza houses in Brookings SD in the 60s were Greek Americans. The current owner of George’s Pizza and Steak House as listed online is Gus Theodosopoulos. The other one in town is Pizza King, also still in business. I also have a vague impression Lee of Lee’s Drive-In in Sioux Falls may be Greek American, but I don’t recall his last name and can find nothing online. I suspect the restaurant closed in the 1990s.

  11. Anonymous

    Looking for info on a Greek restaurant in New York City in 1950 or so, owned by a man last name of Kazenarakas –could be Kazenarakis. He was my grandfather. Darlene at unionhillnj@yahoo.com

    • So sorry but with the thousands and thousands of restaurants in all of New York City it is pretty much impossible to find any trace of a non-famous restaurant of unknown name run by someone known only by a surname of uncertain spelling. I found no one with any version of that last name in a 1957 Manhattan directory. The family is always the best source of information in cases like this. Or possibly the city would have licensing or health dept records, though they wouldn’t tell you much. BTW I did find a 1952 naturalization record for a Nicholas Kazanarakis, born 1897, living in Brooklyn, occupation not given.

    • Darlene

      Thank you, that Nick could be my grandfather, has the same name as my father, not sure if name ends in kas or kis. I’m adopted and RI records were recently opened. Any bit of info helps. Peace, Darlene

  12. My wife went to culinary school later in life and became a chef. I’m a lobbyist in the Texas Legislature. Together, we run a small catering business. I have to say, I eagerly check your blog a couple of times a week! Restaurants have fascinated me since I was a child in the Boston area in the 1970s, and I was taken often to Frank Giuffrida’s Hill top Steak House. To a five year-old, the place was just enormous, and we never went when it wasn’t packed to the gills with people. The dining rooms had names like “Carson City,” and “Kansas City,” which was sort of hilarious when the lady at the front desk called out “Maguiah, pahty of ten, KANSAS CITY” in the Boston accent. The menu had hardly changed when I last ate there in the late 90s–and the decor, which was a very campy 1950’s Western-moderne hadn’t either.

    Anyway, we had a very fine example here in Austin of a Greek owned and operated restaurant up until the early 00s. I think it was called Theo’s, and was located on Congress Avenue.. Ate lunch there many times. The place lasted for decades. Sad to see it gone. Thanks so much for your posts.

  13. Glen.H

    This seems to be a similar pattern to Greek immigrants to Australia up until the 1960s- maybe one or two Greek dishes, everything else tailored to local tastes.

  14. Anonymous

    Makes me miss Mike’s Eat Shoppe in Brookings SD, in the moderne College Theater Building. The Efthimious did great things to meat with oregano, but all else was down the middle Dakota.

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