For Pete's Sake

Oh, thank heaven for 24/7: Pete's Kitchen has become a landmark of late-night Denver.
John Johnston

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.

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.

And of all Pete's places, the Kitchen has the most character, the best insomniac street-theater vibe. Pete's Kitchen is never dull. It's quiet sometimes, but even then it seems invested with potential for serious, high-tone weirdness. And on a Friday night, the weirdness often crawls right up and humps your leg.

Sitting at the counter, I ate my pie and watched the cooks heating up. There were two, three, sometimes four people jammed into the narrow, open line and working at a pace that I knew was desperate but came off like ballet. A long time ago, I'd worked short order at a place a lot like Pete's Kitchen. It was in Buffalo, right on the strip of college bars that fronted Buff State, and was called Pano's. A classic Greek dive, it legally seated 26, max, was open 24 hours a day, served $2.99 steak and eggs every night and had a line that would run out the door, down the street and around the corner. I loved that job, even loved that mounting surge of panic adrenaline that would come as the orders started piling up on the wheel when the bars began emptying and the drunks started stacking up outside. At Pano's, there were fights all the time. I was in the middle of a lot of them. My waitresses were some of the toughest, best girls I've ever known, and the work was great: zero art, all craft. Short-order is the purest example of the line cook's trade, and every night was a pitched battle, a siege in which winning was getting to see the sun come up over an empty house and enjoying the 45 minutes of quiet between 5 and 6 a.m. -- after the end of the bar rush, before the start of the next day's breakfast.

It was better than any drug I've ever found, that feeling of being in the middle of such chaos, of keeping just ahead of disaster. So while I sat there missing Pano's, I watched Pete's guys getting into it. I saw their heads go down, their shoulders hunch, their focus narrow as the wheel grew full. By 2 a.m. -- the worst of it -- I knew they couldn't see anything except what was right in front of them. The grill. A single check. One tomato. The meatstick. The hour between 1:30 and 2:30 a.m. was measured in a thousand near collisions, in expertly spun plates, in the coordinated spiking of more checks than I could count with no mistakes (no serious ones, anyhow), with no waits of more than twenty minutes from order to delivery. That's expertise in the 'round-the-clock diner world. That's being a master of your trade.

Pete's is a scene, sure. An event, if you're visiting after dark. But the food is good, too -- greasy but filling, and cheap besides. The line turns out huge breakfast burritos, Denver's best, swimming in Colorado green; flat-grilled cheeseburgers; out-of-the-bag Sysco fries; Greek specials; big breakfasts at any hour. Some nights just don't feel right if they don't end at Pete's. This was one of those.

Saturday, I was back at the Greek Town Cafe for dinner. This time I had souvlaki, that most recognizable of Greece's contributions to the melting-pot American palate. A generous portion of cubed pork had been left to soak in a powerful marinade of Mediterranean spices, olive oil and lemon juice, then cooked on the grill. It arrived tender and juicy and still tasting foreign in its simplicity. Greek food has survived its assimilation into the American culinary canon surprisingly well, stoutly resisting the grosser aspects of Americanization that have ruined better, more complicated cuisines, by staying true to a relatively simple kitchen ethos (lots of meat, presented with minimum fluffery, and no sauces more intricate than the ubiquitous thimbles of yogurt, cucumber and dill tzatziki) and a limited selections of flavors. Tomatoes, onions, olives and lemon, garlic and dill, bay and oregano keep reappearing, sometimes used delicately, sometimes with a heavy hand. At its most basic, Greek is a beautifully simple cuisine, holding a position on the world-food spectrum midway between Southern Italian and the Middle East.  

But not everything about Greek food is great. The Village Salad I'd ordered to go along with my souvlaki was nothing more than a mess of greens, two olives and a scant pinch of feta drowned in oil and bitter oregano. So I concentrated on the souvlaki, and as I popped a couple of pieces of pork in my mouth, I got to thinking about when I'd last eaten real Greek food. Once, it was one of the polestars in my culinary cosmos. Lately, though, I'd become an American-diner kinda guy, chasing chrome rather than bellying up to the meatstick.

Weird, I thought. But things happen. I figured that maybe my tastes in diner food had merely matured until I crossed the street to Pete's Gyros Place, where that feeling of something having gone missing from my life only grew stronger. When had I last settled down into a back booth of a real Greek hole-in-the-wall? I'd worked in them, hung out in them across the country, gravitated toward their ever-faded cobalt-blue awnings like there was some secret inside that would be revealed to me if only I stayed long enough. And now here I was back in one. Gyros Place had the right geography -- the squashed little short-order line, the abbreviated counter -- and the right sounds: grill sizzling, waitresses chatting. I ordered a burger with feta, some fries, found out the kitchen was out of baklava.

When I was still back East, I probably had a thousand days that began and ended in places just like this, places where all the light seems gray, where all of life's sharp corners got rubbed smooth. I'd have my coffee in them before work, maybe breakfast, too, and meet my ex in them after my shift was done. If I wasn't at some bar, I was at Tom's or Pano's or the Royal Olympic or any of a dozen similar spots where, later, as my career began its tailspin and things with the ex began falling apart, I became a regular to avoid going home. At first it was because I knew the ex would be there. As time went by, I avoided going home because I knew she wouldn't.

I barely touched the burger. It was fine -- not rare, exactly, but not shoe leather, either, and the lettuce, red onion and tomato were all fresh even at this time of night -- but I wasn't. I dawdled for maybe an hour, then left. The smell hung with me, in my hair and on my fingers. Old smoke, grease, the sour smell of warm lemons and souvlaki marinade. I couldn't really sleep that night, and finally, at about 5:30, I just gave up trying.

I went back to Greek Town. And this time, when I stepped through the doors of Pete's Gyros Place, the smell hit me like a sledgehammer to the chest. It was the stink of grills just getting warmed up for the day, of gyros and souvlaki and all those powerful Greek spices, of the vinegar-sharp marinade for the pork and chicken. It smelled like every restaurant I remembered from back in the old days, of a lot of things I've been trying to forget since back then, too. It smelled like being drunk at ten in the morning, of my stupid junkie years, of bad jobs and worse bosses and all those nights spent hiding out. I hadn't been able to put a name to it the night before, but what had been bothering me was why I hadn't set foot in one of these places since leaving New York, the ex, the old friends, my old days. It had been a denial of my past, a denial of territory too rotten with bad memories, a denial of these foods that I'd loved because they'd spent too long sitting around the mental pantry snuggled up warm and tight against imperfect recollections gone rancid.

I spent two hours at Gyros Place that morning, most of it with my eyes closed, drinking bad coffee and letting the smell take me back to a whole lot of things I'd rather not have been thinking about. It hurt like hell, but the food tasted great. The kitchen makes over-easy eggs loose and runny -- just the way I like them -- and home fries shaved thin like potato chips, cooked on the flat grill, then served in huge, mountainous proportions.  

It had been years since I'd had a breakfast like this in a place like this -- and I'd never realized it, hadn't given it a thought until this weekend. No doubt, any shrink would have a field day with all that. Me? I had breakfast.

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Pete's Kitchen

1962 E. Colfax Ave.
Denver, CO 80206


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