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For Pete's Sake

When Pete Petrides Jr. was growing up, Denver's dining scene was better than television. "I would go over to my dad's restaurant and just sit and watch people, listen to their stories," Petrides says. "This was back in the Sixties, and Colfax Avenue was a different sort of entertaining."

At the time, Petrides's dad, Pete Sr., owned Jerry's Steakhouse on Colfax, and he was a good friend of another well-known Greek restaurateur, Pete Contos, who today owns half a dozen area eateries, including longtime Denver favorite Pete's Kitchen. "Pete Contos was the first person my dad met when he moved to Denver," Petrides explains. "He's my godfather, and in fact, his wife baptized me. Back then, the Greek community was pretty tight. Everybody knew each other and, oh, the stories my dad tells now about then."

Pete Sr. moved to Denver in the late Fifties after cutting his culinary teeth on the Beverly Hills Hotel in L.A. "My dad knew James Dean, and he thought life out there was pretty exciting," Petrides says. "But he wanted to do his own place, and Denver was much more affordable." After running Jerry's Steakhouse for more than a decade, Pete Sr. bought and redesigned the now-defunct restaurant inside Union Station, then started what was considered one of Denver's best catering companies, Denver Host. "My dad cooked a lot of the food in Denver at that time," Petrides adds. "Because he was such a behind-the-scenes guy, unlike Pete Contos, who was known as Denver's premier bartender, very few people know my dad's name. But I guarantee you, anyone who's been in Denver for any real length of time has eaten my father's food."

And now they can do so again, at Pete Jr.'s Tre Philios. The name is Greek for "three friends," but the trio behind this restaurant is really made up of two brothers and a friend: Pete's older sibling, Lee, and their buddy, Danny Lowman, a twenty-year restaurant veteran who serves as general manager. But Pete Sr. is very much involved, too; he and his wife, Pauline, come in for two hours every day to cook and supervise. "My dad and my mom make a lot of the more involved dishes, such as the spanakopita and the pastitsio, and Lee does the books," says Petrides. "Danny and I do just about everything else, and sometimes I get to get back in the kitchen with my dad, which seems like old times."

Although Petrides always wanted to follow in his father's footsteps, he first took a detour into Denver's nightclub scene. "I worked with Regas Christou for years, and I thought he and I were going to open a place," Petrides explains. "But Regas wanted to stay strictly nightclub, and I really wanted to do something more food-oriented." But since he also wanted his joint to have a nightclub edge, he chose a space in Tamarac Square. "I actually hung out there a lot when I was an older kid, because my family moved to Aurora," he says. "And, ironically, Danny worked at places here, like Houlihan's, and so I knew him long before we ever thought of owning a restaurant together."

When they opened Tre Philios a year ago this month, the three tried to go upscale, but the demand simply wasn't there. "We realized that if we were going to survive, we had to make the menu more casual and concentrate on bringing in live bands on Fridays," Petrides says. And that's exactly what people around here seemed to want.

But they also want Pete Sr.'s cooking. And so while Tre Philios's dining room looks like a stripped-down Houlihan's, complete with a big patio off to one side, the food is Greek-based Mediterranean--albeit a little more contemporary, a little more pricey, and served in a lot bigger portions than those at other Greek places around town.

It would take a giant to finish Petro's Pastitsio ($13.95), a richer-than-usual take on the Greek version of macaroni and cheese. Here the macaroni and cinnamon-seasoned ground beef were held together by a not-too-thick nutmeg-speckled bechamel sauce, which had also been ladled over the top. Like all of Tre Philios's entrees, the pastitsio came with a side of oregano-sprinkled sauteed vegetables--yellow and green squashes, bell peppers--and soup or salad. The soup that day was supposed to be chicken with vegetables, but the thin, bland liquid contained little chicken and such limp vegetables that it seemed like nothing more than a leftovers soup. Much fresher was the salad: greens and red onions topped with the house vinaigrette, a strong, tart mixture packed with herbs and heavy on the oregano.

Competing with the pastitsio for largest-portion honors was the spanakopita ($12.95), a huge wedge of spinach layered with onions, cream and feta cheeses and phyllo pastry, all of which had melded into one intense dish. And the gyro platter ($10.95) brought two sandwiches' worth of excellent, heavily seasoned, spit-roasted lamb hunks, perfect for stuffing into a large pita and drizzling with the minty, yogurt-sharpened tzatziki sauce.

When we returned on a Friday night, a reggae band was playing on the deck, with the sounds drifting into the dining room. The music provided an ideal backdrop for some major snacking, and we gleefully put away an order of tre philiaki ($6.95), actually saganaki, or cheese flame-broiled before your eyes. Although the traditional cheese of choice is Kasseri, Tre Philios used Haloumi, a semisoft sheep's-milk product whose creamier texture and reduced saltiness made it a better choice than the harder Kasseri, which can be so salty that the reverberating effect of the lemon-juice-doused crumbly coating around the pungent cheese makes your mouth pucker in pain.

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