Find of the day: Demos Café

It’s pretty cool when you can stroll over to an antiquarian book and ephemera show only a few blocks from your house and, barely 10 feet into the room, come upon a trove of restaurant memorabilia. That’s what happened a few days ago when I found a collection of photographs and water glasses from one of Muskegon’s premier cafés.

Judging from the hubbub in some of the photos of the bar area, the moderne-style Demos Café was a real Michigan hotspot in 1939 and 1940 when these were taken. Some of the patrons seem to be hiding from the camera and one man’s face was deliberately blacked out in the darkroom. Hmmm…

Located at 415-419 W. Western Avenue, the café was owned and run by the Greek-American Demos brothers, Spyros, Theodore (Ted), and John. Ted is shown behind the bar in two of these photos while John stands in the back of a crowded room in one and in another lights a cigarette for visiting Hollywood celebrity Buddy Rogers, husband of Mary Pickford. The café’s cocktail lounge often hosted touring jazz bands. And, as can be seen, it kept customers up to date on baseball scores.

The café’s wood veneer backbar was almost certainly a product of local industry. The Brunswick-Balke-Collender company’s main plant, which manufactured bar fixtures, was located in Muskegon. As soon as beer was legalized in 1933 the factory geared up with 1,500 new workers in anticipation of renewed business.

In addition to serving zombies (“only 2 to a person”) and frozen daiquiris, and apparently pouring quantities of Four Roses bourbon, the Demos Café specialized in steaks, chops, and sea foods. Signs placed in the front windows advertise a blue plate special for 50 cents, “genuine Italian spaghetti with Roman cheese” for 35 cents a plate, and “sizzling steaks,” a Depression-era culinary gimmick across the U.S. As was true of most Greek-American restaurants, the menu would have been thoroughly Americanized, without any dishes common to the owners’ native land.

During its heyday in the 1940s the Demos Café, along with the Causeway Café and the Lakos Café – all Greek-American owned – was one of the big three restaurants in Muskegon. But by 1951 or 1952 the café apparently went out of business after a tax investigation and lawsuit.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

9 Comments

Filed under proprietors & careers

9 responses to “Find of the day: Demos Café

  1. Ted Demos was my grandfather (papou). I absolutely loved your article and have shared it with my mother (his daughter) – thank you for writing it. I would love to know if the glasses and memorabilia you wrote about are still available. I would like to get some of them for her as gift. Please contact me regardless as we are both intrigued as to who you are and how you got all this incredible information.

  2. matina Ross

    I am the daughter of one of the partners of Lakos Cafe. My father, Chris Vulgaris and his two brothers along with the Lakos’s and the Courtes’s, owned the restaurant which began in 1911 and closed in 1982. Lakos, in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s especially, was known as the “showplace ” of Western Michigan. It served very good food. Matina Ross

  3. This is fascinating! (I am interested in Greek American history) Very good point about the Americanized menu. I suppose one has to wait for the revival of ethnicity in the late 1960s for ethnic food to begin appearing. Or maybe ethnic restaurants first which then allows the mainstream establishments such as diners and restaurants to add the odd Greek salad and spinach pie…

  4. Maybe the law suit was for wrongful death after a patron was served more than two of those Zombies — or horribly disfigured; the Zombie recipes of my youth involved a 151 proof rum floater afire on top and I once saw a bottle of the rum turn into a blow torch — quite a sight. Same thing happened once in chemistry class, something about all the alcohol in the bottle being sucked out of the bottle by the flame. Don’t try it at home, or in public for that matter.

  5. Leo Fontanella

    Another great “Restauranting through History”…….

  6. Murphy

    Great post, Jan. Love that local lore! But “they serve Zombies” is a wonderful set-up: “A zombie walks into a bar…”

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