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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.

The stuffed calamari ($7.25) also offered a tasty twist on an old standard: Large slices of squid had each been packed with an herby filling of minced vegetables, then breaded and deep-fried. Also deep-fried were the chicken strips ($5.95)--not the typical frozen cardboard, but pieces of fresh chicken that had been marinated in lemon juice, then lightly breaded and fried.

After those hearty appetizers, we split a Greek salad ($5.25) and a plate of souvlaki ($12.95). The salad was a heaping helping of the usual components--feta, kalamatas, cucumbers, tomatoes--tossed with that vivid vinaigrette. For the souvlaki, cubed pork, chunks of bell peppers, whole mushrooms and onion slices had been marinated in a lemony liquid that sharpened on the grill. The three skewers were served over enough Mediterranean rice to feed half the Mediterranean. As it was, Tre Philios's hefty portions almost did in our party of three.

Lower prices and smaller servings are the order of the day at Pete's Central One, two tiny, table-jammed rooms that combined are about a tenth the size of Tre Philios. Last year, Petrides's godfather, Pete Contos, added the fifteen-year-old Central I to his growing list of eateries (besides the Kitchen, he also owns the Satire Lounge, Pete's Gyros Place, Pete's Ice Cream & Coffee and the University Park Cafe); so far, he hasn't changed much.

A few of the recipes could use a little updating. For example, the avgolemono soup that comes with the entrees was too thick, too salty and tasted too much like it was made from an unadulterated commercial base. The breading on the calamari ($5.50) was pasty, as though the squid had been fried earlier and then reheated for serving. And the saganaki ($4.95) involved such a thin little brick of Kasseri that a minimal amount of heat cooked it into a briquette.

But our other appetizers were top-notch. The trio sampler of dips ($4.95) included taramasalata, a blend of orange carp roe, breadcrumbs, lemon juice and olive oil; a particularly appealing fava, made from yellow lentils pureed with garlic, lemon juice and olive oil; and Central One's tzatziki, a good mix of yogurt with cucumber and garlic. And the tyropitas ($4.50)--two pastries filled with three cheeses, then baked into rich, oily bundles--were positively addictive.

Although Pete's does several Greek classics as vegetarian dishes, the meat offerings are the real standouts. A gyros plate ($8.95) brought tender, juicy gyros slices sided with tomatoes, onions (a smaller dice would be nice) and decent fat French fries; the souvlaki ($8.95) was a huge portion of tasty pig.

Both the pastitsio ($8.95) and the moussaka ($8.95) came topped with Central One's signature parmesan-thickened custard; the same thin tomato sauce cut the richness of each. We also tried the meatless moussaka ($7.95), but the lasagna-like layering of eggplant, potato and cheese needed the addition of tangy spiced beef. The shrimp and feta ($9.95), however, worked swimmingly: Another tomato sauce, this one redolent with nutmeg, had been poured over large shrimp sauteed with onions and garlic and mounded on rice; the dish had been studded with balls of feta that were just beginning to melt as the plate arrived at our table.

Besides baklava ($2.25)--a sugary and wet, wet version that's enough for two--Pete's also offers more unusual desserts. The galactobouriko ($2.50) was a farina-based, caramel-laced custard spiked with cognac; the courabiedes (95 cents each) looked like a massive mound of powdered sugar, but a dig beneath unearthed a rich, buttery shortbread cookie.

Although dinner at Central One is a bargain, lunch is an even better deal. The Kasseri cheese worked better melted against eggplant and tomatoes inside a pita ($4.25) and served with fries. More fries came with the unbelievably good lamb sandwich ($4.50): slices from a roasted leg of lamb stuffed into a pita and drizzled with yogurt sauce. For the love of Pete!  

Although I appreciate Tre Philios's efforts and atmosphere, Pete's Central One--with its high quality and low prices--really speaks my language. This is Greek to me.

Tre Philios, 7777 East Hampden Avenue, 303-755-9645. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

Pete's Central One, 300 South Pearl Street, 303-778-6675. Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-9 p.m. Monday; 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 5-9:30 p.m. Saturday.

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