The Open Kitchen doesnt have a website or a Twitter feed.
What it does have are dozens of school pennants hanging from one section of the ceiling. A bicycling bear on a string stretched across the main dining room. A growth chart by the door with so many names, no more will fit.
Outside, it looks like a spumoni ice cream cake, with green, white and red awnings, striped poles that look like theyre waiting to dock a gondola, and the triumphant slogan: Home of the PIZZA Pie.
Inside, the three dining rooms have brick walls covered with more memorabilia than an episode of Antiques Roadshow.
But forget all that for a minute. Because what the restaurant really has are history and tradition. Even tragedy.
Greek-owned and Italian-flavored, the Open Kitchen turned 60 in April, an anomaly in a time and place where dining out is a hunt for trends and few restaurants make it longer than a decade.
Dinner date? Why not?
At a corner table with a red-checked tablecloth, something special happened on a recent Wednesday night.
Amanda Matheny, 21, and Ralph Dickson, 23, had their first real date. A dinner date. The kind where you dress nicely, look nervous and sit up straight.
Ralph let Amanda pick the place, and she chose the World Famous Open Kitchen, because she goes there with her mom and Ralph hadnt been.
We dont know what will happen with Amanda and Ralph good luck, kids but we do know this: With that one dinner, they joined a long line of lives that are tied to this one restaurant.
An hour earlier, Mil and Ron Willis of Boiling Springs came in to celebrate their 38th anniversary at the place where they had their first date.
In a private room at the back, 14 people from Harding High Schools Class of 66 were having a reunion at the place where they went after football games and the prom.
Co-owner Christina Skiouris, the daughter and niece of the founders, hears this stuff all the time.
I had my first date here. I had my prom night here. I had my first pizza here. We used to drive from Shelby. We used to drive from Lancaster.
Neighborhood heats up
The Open Kitchens glory days may be as dusty as some of those pennants hanging from the ceiling. Most of the regulars filling tables that Wednesday night were on the far side of 60.
But its area of West Charlotte is on the upswing, with new restaurants like Pinkys and Savor Café. Nearby Wesley Heights is catching on with young families.
Chris Wannamaker, a commercial real estate developer who heads up the Freemore West Business Association, hates it when you say the area is starting to turn around. It started changing years ago, he says. These days, its a vital, growing area.
Still, even he puzzles over how the Open Kitchen has hung on.
If people had their secret, thered be a lot of happy people in the world, he says. Youve got me on how its survived.
Architect Murray Whisnant, a lifelong Charlottean who takes a special interest in uptown neighborhoods, thinks the Open Kitchens real secret is its authenticity.
Its because its real, he declares. And most restaurants arent real. Theyll have an Irish name from a nonexistent Irishman or something.
The Open Kitchen is a real place. When everything is phony, whats real stands out.
A Greek tradition
There was a time when Charlottes restaurant world was firmly Greek-owned. Italian restaurants were Greek, diners and coffee shops were Greek. Barbecue restaurants had baklava on the menu and Parthenon pictures on the wall.
In that world, the Kokenes (koe-KEEN-as) family was royalty. Constantine Gus Kokenes, Christinas grandfather, came here at 14 to join two uncles who had a fruit stand. The story is that he didnt speak English, just arrived in New York with a note pinned to his shirt asking strangers to put him on a train for Charlotte.
In 1914, he went back to Greece and returned with a wife, Vasiliki. Some people say Mama K was the first Greek woman in Charlotte. She and Gus had five kids Themos, Speros, Stephen, Janet and Amanda.
Theres a 1926 picture of Gus diner, the Star Lunch, near West Trade and Graham streets. Steve, 7, is on a stool, Janet is in a stroller and Themos, 11, is puffed with pride in a long white apron.
Steve, Christinas dad, left Charlotte and opened a printing business in Washington. His older brother, Speros, stayed here and opened several small restaurants.
In 1952, Speros built a place on West Morehead Street, across from the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. It was small, with curb service, a little dining room and a counter where you could see into the yes open kitchen. It served American food like hamburgers.
After a couple of years Speros talked Steve into coming back to help with the restaurant.
That took guts, says Christina, now 58. To load up a 49 Ford with three children and a wife and move from D.C. back to Charlotte to start over.
Steve, it turned out, was made for restaurants. He loved people and food. In Washington, hed discovered Italian food, particularly a craze called pizza, and brought the recipes with him.
He and Speros expanded and made their restaurant Italian and American: Barbecue and fried chicken on one side of the menu, red-sauce Italian and pizza, that teenager magnet, on the other.
They named a couple of things after their mother, including the Mama Ks Supreme pizza and Mama Ks Salad Dressing. But a Greek menu was out of the question.
You have to go back to the 50s, Skiouris says of customers then. Theyd never heard of pizza. The garlic was scary to them Whats that smell? Greek food would have put them over.
A 1967 tragedy
In a small city where everybody knew everybody, everybody who was anybody went to the Open Kitchen. Mayors, attorneys, personalities from WBTV up the street.
Jim Murchison, who was in on a recent night with his wife and mother-in-law, grew up in Concord 50 years ago when a trip to the Open Kitchen was a rite.
Once you turned 16, you got your license and a date and you came to the Open Kitchen for pizza. Pizza pie!
In the front room, theres a portrait of Steve in a bowler hat, looking a lot like the comedian Phil Silvers. He used to come to work every night in a red vest and a bow tie.
The Kokeneses were active in Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church on East Boulevard. Steve helped to start the annual festival, Yiasou. Mama K couldnt speak much English, but she led the annual bake sale.
On a February night in 1967, Speros agreed to work for Steve so Christinas parents could go to a charity event, the Heart Ball.
What happened that night is one of Charlottes great mysteries: After the restaurant closed, Speros went across the street, the nights receipts in his pocket. He wanted to move his car to the front door so he could drive the waitresses home.
One waitress was watching and saw a strange man jump in the car with Speros. The car sped off on South Summit Avenue. She shouted for help and head cook George Zaharias leaped in his car to chase them.
The chase hit speeds of up to 100 miles per hour as Zaharias tried to cut them off. Suddenly, Kokenes car slowed and a man jumped out and ran. The car crashed into a telephone pole.
When Zaharias reached him, Speros Kokenes was dead from a bullet to the head. The restaurants money was still in his pocket.
Christina, then 13, was babysitting that night when her brother called, frantically trying to find their parents.
She still remembers reaching her uncles house and hearing her grandmother screaming.
Speros Kokenes killer was never found. The case is still open; if you have information, contact the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Cold Case Hot Line, 704-336-2358.
Life goes on
The Open Kitchen went on, with Steve running it. It was so much a part of their lives that Christina remembers her daughter, now a Washington attorney, playing in the toy cars at Freedom Park when she was a toddler. Christina asked where she was going.
Open Kitchen, her daughter declared.
After she married, Christina Skiouris moved to Greece for several years. But when she came back, she joined the restaurant, too. Today, she runs it with her brother, Alex Kokenes, and their brother Dean is a co-owner. Her two sons work there as well.
Steve Kokenes died in 1983, of prostate cancer. But there was never a question that the family would keep the place going, even as West Morehead went downhill and became an area of bedraggled brick buildings, before the Panthers and their stadium started to turn it around.
American food was dropped from the menu long ago, and Christina makes no apologies for the retro style of the menu, where the Veal Barcelona is served on spaghetti tossed with lots of butter and the pizza doesnt pretend to be craggy-crusted or artisan.
Its good food, she says. As my brother puts it, this is 1950s Italian.
When Northerners come in, I hear, This is like our corner restaurant back home why did it take so long to find you? Because youve been going to Carrabbas! she jokes. Well, I dont say that. But I think it.
People sometimes ask why they dont build an Open Kitchen in another town, in Lancaster or Gastonia or Shelby. But that wouldnt work, she says.
Then it would just be another chain.
It was built on atmosphere. Its family.