By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
This was one of those weekends when too much introspection and too many bad memories had turned me sour, when anything could trigger an avalanche of old junk down in my subconscious basement, raising dust and making my head hurt. Some ill-timed souvlaki, a lack of sleep and the smell of one of Denver's Greek Town dives at six in the morning had all conspired to put me into one of those Proust-and-the-madeleines scenes. Cathartic, a shrink would call it, this confrontation with my past. But Proust was a mama's boy who turned a cookie into twelve volumes of Remembrance of Things Past, and if this was catharsis, I wanted a pill to make it go away.
I'd been haunting Colfax Avenue at odd hours to scout out the restaurant empire of Pete Contos, who owns seven places around the city and most of the addresses that make up the short stretch known as Greek Town. Contos has been building his chain since 1962, starting with the Satire Lounge, a fast-and-cheesy Mexican joint, then adding the Kitchen, the Greek Town Cafe, Pete's Ice Cream and Coffee and -- squeezed between a storefront Chinese restaurant and a Greek bakery -- Pete's Gyros Place, the archetype of the little Greek diner, all Formica, battered vinyl and steel, a solid "Chee'burger, chee'burger, no Coke, Pepsi!" throwback to the days when a man's only choice in diners were edge-of-town truck stops and those unkillable Greek joints for which the term "greasy spoon" was coined. Contos has a cradle-to-grave stranglehold on this stretch of Colfax: Whether it's early in the morning or late at night, whether you're looking for beers, burgers or dolmades, odds are that if you're in the neighborhood, you're going to end up at a Pete's Whatever.
I'd pulled into the lot behind Pete's Greek Town Cafe on Friday afternoon. In this armada of restaurants, the Greek Town Cafe is the culinary flagship, offering the broadest spread of Greek food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It's also the de facto headquarters of the Contos operation. A corner table in the smoking section serves as the nerve center for Pete and his lieutenants, a place where they can coordinate orders, plot strategy and gripe about the hundred little daily disasters that come from a food-service life. One time, it was a broken water heater that needed to be replaced; on this afternoon, a cook that needed replacing. There was a bad hood ventilator to be fixed, a produce man jacking Contos on cases of romaine. But also, a good deal on tomatoes at Nobel Sysco, so a flurry of phone calls went out to the other restaurants to tell managers not to order tomatoes, that the cafe would buy in bulk, then distribute cases around town. At the center of all this action was Contos, hunched over at the table, working two cell phones and giving orders like Patton at Remagen.
1962 E. Colfax Ave.
Denver, CO 80206
Region: Central Denver
Pete's Greek Town Cafe, 2910 East Colfax, 303-321-1104. Open daily, 6 a.m.-11 p.m.
Pete's Gyros Place, 2819 East Colfax, 303-321-9658. Open daily, 6 a.m.-11 p.m.
When you control a market the way Contos does, your restaurants don't have to be great. They only have to be good enough that potential customers don't drive a few blocks farther to go somewhere else. All you have to do is be there, be open, be competent. And in that, the Greek Town Cafe was right on the money. It was spotlessly clean and sunny, but not overbearingly cheerful. The decor was suspended halfway between over-done diner and understated family dinner destination, with the space dressed up to match the upper limits of the menu -- a little faux brickwork here, some Greek-ish columns there, cream-colored drapes tied back from the big windows, and diner-style brushed aluminum on the counter and in the service area scoured opening-day bright. The service was friendly and quick, the crowd a mishmash of Colfax-by-daylight, with Greeks from the neighborhood, businessmen, a table full of kids making a mess with straw wrappers and creamers, a counter full of cabbies on their lunch break. And in the smoking area, a couple more lonelyhearts like me.
The Cafe's gyros were fine -- ground beef and lamb, pressed and seasoned, shaved straight off the giant rotisserie meatstick in the kitchen, then wrapped in a crisp, buttery pita with tomatoes and red and white onions -- but the coffee was terrible, as it is at all of Pete's locations. Universally weak and watery, it's more like a bitter coffee-bean tea than a proper hit of java.
Bad coffee isn't the only thing Pete's restaurants have in common. With the exception of the Satire's Mexican grub, the menus all look similar. They fit together like Legos, each spot presenting a core board of gyros, souvlaki, burgers and eggs, as well as something special. At the Greek Town Cafe, that's dinner. This is where you go for buttery saganaki (pan-fried kasseri cheese with a parmesan sauce), big salads topped with crumbled feta, eggplant mousaka with ground beef and potatoes, and a nice shrimp santorini in a tomato cream sauce. This is not where you go for breakfast -- a meal where the setting is as important as the food.
No, for breakfast any time of the day, you go to Pete's Kitchen, just down the street. I hit this institution that same night, arriving early -- just after 1 a.m. -- because by 2 a.m., there's often a line stretching out the door and down the block. I took my seat at the counter and ordered bad coffee, a bowl of avgolemono soup (chicken and rice in a puckering lemony broth that's one of the things Pete's Kitchen does best) and a slice of cherry pie -- homemade, not frozen. It's the same cherry pie that all Pete's restaurants serve, but it's just better here.