Serving strangers food with love
Pete Politis came to Charlotte in 1952 at age 22, leaving most of his family behind in Greece, a country torn apart by a generation of war.
“Greece then, it was paralyzed,” he says now. “My father told me, ‘You’re going to the best country in the world.’ ”
When he got to Charlotte, he did what hundreds of Greek immigrants here did: He started as a dishwasher, working seven days a week for $1 a day and sleeping on the floor of an uncle’s house. After a month, he got a raise — to $2 a day.
Politis, now 87, went on to open a list of Charlotte classics, most long gone: The Little White House on South Boulevard. Eat More Lunch on Central Avenue. The Town & Country Drive-In. Tanner’s Snack Bar. Matthews Family House, The Sandpiper, the Plantation Family Restaurant. The original version of the Skyland Diner.
All were Greek-owned. None served much Greek food.
“Early days, there was no support for ethnic food,” he says on a recent weekday, taking a break from running the host stand at his grandson Pete’s restaurant, the Old Pineville Premium Pub, where the menu of burgers and tacos is dotted with gyro tacos, Greek-style village salad and chicken pitas with tzatziki sauce.
“You’d risk your investment.”
If there is a one question that runs through Charlotte’s food story, it’s this: How could a city so shaped by Greeks — Greek school, Greek churches, even a Greek section in Evergreen Cemetery — have so little Greek food?
Oh, it was there if you knew where to look: Barbecue restaurants with baklava for dessert, “Italian” restaurants like the Open Kitchen with Greek salads and Greek-style dressing, “all-American” diners with moussaka occasionally snuck in among the weekly specials of roast beef and mashed potatoes or spaghetti and meatballs.
The story of Greek food in Charlotte may finally be changing, though: Thanks to the exploding popularity of anything labeled “Mediterranean” — sometimes just a code word for Greek or Middle Eastern — maybe Charlotte has caught on at last.
Is it finally time for a Greek restaurant revival?
“Charlotte’s ready for one,” says Pete Politis’ son, Louis, who’s 64. “It’s just who’s going to pull the trigger.
“If I was 20 years younger, I’d open one.”
A world of their own
Growing up Greek around here makes you part of a particular world. You can choose from two Greek Orthodox churches, Holy Trinity or St. Nektarios. You can celebrate Greek holidays and eat Greek food at home. After school several days a week, kids are still sent to Greek class at Holy Trinity, where they learn to read and write in Greek.
Elaine Tatsis Haskell is a physician recruiter for Atrium Health, a job that keeps her constantly on the road. She was born in America, but she didn’t learn English until she was old enough to play with other kids around her family’s house in Dilworth.
Her parents spoke Greek at home. So did the cousins who came over from Greece and slept on the Tatsises’ couch on Mount Vernon Avenue while they looked for work.
That work was easy to find: The Tatsises were a restaurant family. Haskell’s dad, John Tatsis, and her uncle, Tommy Kofinas, owned Charlotte’s first sports bar, Kofinas’ Snack Bar, at 223 W. Trade St. Elvis ate there once, in 1956. Until it closed in 1981, its walls were covered with pictures of local boxers and ball players, and mayors Stan Brookshire and John Belk were regulars.
She grew up running around uptown, from the snack bar to her Uncle Nick’s dry-cleaning store up the street. Some people say that in the 1950s and ‘60s, every restaurant along Tryon and Trade had Greek owners.
“When I was growing up, everybody was family,” she says. “Most of the Greek people, they would come over, learn the language, get their driver’s license and go to work.”
The Sedgefield neighborhood where they lived was “Greek town,” he says. If you didn’t work in a restaurant, you worked for Lance, the cracker company. But mostly, it was restaurants.
“Growing up, it was always, ‘What restaurant is your family?’ ”
Why were so many of the Greek families involved in restaurants? Partly, it was an easy job to learn even if you didn’t speak much English.
“A lot of them didn’t speak the language, they were brought over by their families,” says Gary Anderson, the son of Jimmie Anderson (the family name was originally Andritsanos), who started the Elizabeth Avenue diner Anderson’s. He closed the restaurant and shifted to catering in 2006.
While they learned the language, they’d start at the bottom, as dishwashers, says Anderson. On breaks, they’d watch the cooks. Since the cooks were making American food, that’s what they learned.
“People weren’t eating Greek food — they didn’t know what it was.”
There is another reason, though, that so many Greeks opened restaurants in America. It’s a Greek philosophy: Philoxenia.
Philoxenia (usually pronounced fil-OH-zeen-yah) means “friends to strangers,” and it’s more than just hospitality. In Greece, it means you have an obligation to help anyone who needs it, especially by sharing food.
Father Vasileios Tsourlis, the leader of Holy Trinity, says philoxenia is a key to being Greek, both in what you expect from others and in what you share.
“The Greek people will embrace anyone,” he says. “If you go now to Greece, if you are a stranger but you need food or shelter, they won’t ask you twice. They will just embrace you, as if they’ve known you for years. We share our love, our food, our culture, our language. We were always philoxenia.”
Where’s the Greek food in Charlotte? For 40 years, on the weekend after Labor Day, it’s been on East Boulevard, at the annual Holy Trinity festival Yiasou.
Starting in 1923, Holy Trinity was the glue that held Charlotte’s Greek world together. Until the opening of St. Nektarios in 1998, it was the only Greek Orthodox church in the area and is still the most central.
If you grew up Greek, Holy Trinity wasn’t just your church, it was your social life, your school, your civic clubs. Holy Trinity was so big, it was the center of a metropolis – the Greek Orthodox version of a regional diocese — that covered four states: Florida, Georgia and North and South Carolina. (It moved to Atlanta for a more central location in 1980.)
The Rev. Phaeton Constantinides — known locally as Father C — ran the church for 30 years, shaping much of Greek Charlotte. He was the one who convinced people to buy burial plots at Evergreen, where the grave markers are now a roll call of Charlotte restaurant families, and he was the one who pulled church members together to start the festival.
Haskell remembers that it started as a Valentine pastry sale, then got bigger and bigger. She’s still there every year, working the cash register in the dining room, the same job her mother, Kay Tatsis, did before her.
“It’s still a tight-knit community,” she says. “Do you know what it takes to put on that festival? It’s a massive undertaking.”
The festival, though, isn’t just a time to shoot Instagram pictures of baklava sundaes. It’s part of philoxenia — sharing the culture, sharing the music. It also keeps the traditions alive.
“To see people waiting in line for an hour, an hour and half for a gyro is tremendous,” says Angelo Kaltsounis, partner with Stratos Lambos in the restaurant Ilios Noche, one of the only fine-dining restaurants in Charlotte with a Greek-inspired menu.
“It’s good for the culture; it’s good for the restaurants.”
And it may be good for what’s starting to happen.
Ready to eat Greek?
Charlotte’s Greek-owned restaurants are mostly a mom-and-pop world: Small, family-owned places with simple, affordable menus. They’re all under pressure, from aging owners to higher food costs. Many are on land that’s too valuable to support with burgers and fries.
Many classic spots have already been lost: The Athens, the original location of the Knife & Fork (it reopened in a new location earlier this year at 6416 Albemarle Road), Stassinos and, most recently, the Philadelphia Deli.
“The second and third generation doesn’t want to work morning, noon and night,” says Gary Anderson. “My children’s generation, very few are getting in the restaurant business. The way to make money in this business now is to have multiple units. And alcohol. If you don’t have that, you’re dead in the water.”
What needs to happen next, say several owners, is better Greek food. With the explosion of interest in so-called Mediterranean diets, it may be time for Greek restaurants to step it up — and for Americans to stop thinking of it as a cheap lunch special.
The problem is, we’ve had it cheap for so long, says Gary Anderson. People expect it to stay that way. That’s why he closed to concentrate on catering.
“People complained if we went up even a little in price,” he says. “And then, when we closed, they said, ‘Oh, we had a deal, we didn’t know how good we had it.’ I’d laugh. And when they left, I’d cry.”
Andy Kastanas has always had Greek influences on his menus, from the old Cosmos Cafe to today’s ultra-hip Soul Gastrolounge: Anchovy fries, pitas, spicy feta dip.
He’s cagey about his own future plans and whether they might include something more definitively Greek: “I haven’t decided not to,” is all he will say.
Someone needs to do it, though, he says. They owe it to their ancestors.
“This is a whole different ball game now. Not diners, putting it in the proper light. We’ll be letting them down if we don’t step it up. Somebody should branch out.”
Some already are. Gus Georgoulias, who started at the Open Kitchen and went on to open a number of Charlotte clubs, recently went full Greek with Estia’s Kouzina in Belmont.
With the slogan “Authentic — Greek — Modern,” there’s only one Italian-style dish on the dinner menu, Bolognese. The rest is all Greek, from a pan-seared version of the cheese appetizer saganaki to pork souvlaki with Cretan pilaf.
And Angelo Kaltsounis and Stratos Lambos are expanding their restaurant group, Xenia Hospitality (yes, from philoxenia). They’re in construction on Ilios Crafted Greek, at Summit and Church streets near uptown, now expected to open in late December.
It will be their most Greek menu to date: a fast-casual setting with a rotisserie grill and kontosouvli, a combination of spit-cooking and roasting from Crete and Cyprus. They’re even going to showcase spinach pie in different forms.
When they opened Ilios Noche in 2003, they mixed Italian dishes into the menu for practicality, says Kaltsounis.
“People recognize pasta and Italian things like that,” he says. “We kept them on the menu to pay our bills. Greek was taking a chance.”
Tastes may have finally changed, he says. Charlotte is a city with people who came here from a lot of places, with more exposure to authentic food.
“I think the market is ready,” Kaltsounis says. “Greek can be put on the forefront. It’s time.“