On a sunny spring day in Congress Park, customers sit on a restaurant patio bedecked with blue umbrellas. Neighbors greet each other as they come and go, while dogs wait beneath the tables for a stray morsel.
This isn't the scene in front of one of Denver's hot new restaurants, but at Chef Zorba's Authentic Greek Cuisine, which just celebrated its fortieth birthday. And among the diners on that patio, or ensconced in one of the booths inside, you might find guests who've witnessed nearly every single day of those forty years. Charlene Smartwood, for example, who was the eatery's first customer in 1979 and remains a regular. Herb Jones grew up in Congress Park, was a postman in nearby Park Hill his entire career, and still eats at Zorba's every day. Vannette Hardy worked as a waitress at the diner for 28 years and continues to come in for the daily crew meal even though she's been retired for more than a year.
One face that's a little newer is that of Karen LuKanic, who purchased Chef Zorba's about a year ago. Her plan, she admits, was not to run a neighborhood Greek diner, but to find a good location from which to start her own restaurant. After years of working for corporate restaurants, most recently as chief marketing officer for the Palm chain of steakhouses, LuKanic understood that creating a solid foundation could lead to a lucrative sale down the road. "Our first thought was to build a little brand," she explains.
And settling down in Denver looked alluring after a career traveling for other companies. "I was spending my life on airplanes," she notes. "I'm probably the only person who ever bought a restaurant to spend more time with their family."
Still, the initial path was rocky. Congress Park residents accustomed to the relaxed, timeworn Zorba's were leery of change. The restaurant had been founded in 1979 by Alex Pappas, whose son George went on to open Shells & Sauce just a block away. In 2004, Dimitrios and Shellie Tsiopelas took over, moving the diner one door down to its current address.
"I was the big bad wolf for a little while," LuKanic recalls. "But we just stayed the course. We quickly found out we'd have a revolt on our hands if we changed anything."
When LuKanic purchased Zorba's, she set aside extra money for renovations, but rather than overhaul the entire space and make it unrecognizable, she put the money into the building's infrastructure. A new roof and repairs to the HVAC system, gas lines and walk-in coolers became the priority. "We spent a lot of money in the first six months just making the place safer and more pleasant," she recalls. "And when we took over, we did a whole lot of cleaning. We had zero points taken off on our last health inspection."
Indeed, the place is gleaming, especially considering its age. A seat at the counter, from which you can see directly into the kitchen, affords a view of cooks stirring soups with whisks so big it would take most of us two hands to use, servers shuttling plates of souvlaki or gyros, and stacks of coffee cups waiting to be filled. There's no pattern of wear on the floors or counters, no film of age that gives most older joints their patina. LuKanic says she was mindful of making the place look too new, so only replaced the upholstery on booths where the fabric had completely worn through, leaving others alone. And there are still plenty of Greek-diner flourishes throughout the space, from the hand-painted image of Chef Zorba on the front window to the touristy clock with its photo of the Greek isles above the kitchen pass.
LuKanic grew up in Chicago and was best friends with a girl whose dad owned a string of Greek joints; she says diner food helped get her through high school. She knows her moussaka from her pastichio, and one of her goals when she purchased Zorba's was to bring consistency to the menu. "My husband and daughter and I were Zorba's customers," she says, adding that they'd noticed dishes didn't taste the same from visit to visit. "We've actually been writing down recipes to get a handle on food costs and consistency," she adds. While the menu hasn't changed much, LuKanic thinks that customers now notice that the quality is the same at each meal.
The bar program has changed; LuKanic expanded it from the standard brunch drinks and piney retsina (the Greek white wine stored in barrels sealed with resin) to include a wide variety of modern Greek wines, local beers and a couple of new cocktails, such as a Greek Bloody Mary made with ouzo and a Greek dirty martini made with a splash of pepperoncini juice.
She's also taken note of certain Denver peculiarities. "People put green chile on everything!" she points out. And since Congress Park seems to have a large population of vegan and vegetarian residents, she's added a Meatless Monday special and keeps a close eye on the quality of the falafel and hummus, two big sellers.
On May 15, Chef Zorba's held a fortieth birthday celebration, where it invited guests to contribute to a time capsule that was then buried on the property. The kitchen made breakfast burritos for $1.99 (selling forty orders in less than an hour) and offered birthday cake to lunch and dinner customers. LuKanic says she marveled at the close-knit community — police officers, young medical professionals, retirees — that came in from the surrounding blocks for the bash. "It's like a town within a town," she explains.
And once the initial whispers and rumors quieted down in that town, customers welcomed her and the minor changes she'd instituted to bring Zorba's up to date, LuKanic says. First-timers likely won't notice the imprint of a new owner, though; the diner still feels like a neighborhood classic.
LuKanic is pleased that she found a balance between honoring Chef Zorba's history and adding her own touches. "It's great to be part of something that grows when you put a little water on it," she concludes.
Chef Zorba's Authentic Greek Cuisine serves breakfast, lunch and dinner from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday and 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday at 2626 East 12th Avenue. Call 303-321-0091 or visit chefzorbas.com for more details.