When you're ready to start a different part of your life, you have to leave old things behind. That wasn't the lifestyle I wanted to lead anymore," says Adriana Aguilar, sitting at a table inside Melita's Greek Cafe & Market, the restaurant that she and her mother, Maria Gibson, took over eighteen months ago.
Aguilar didn't just leave a lifestyle behind, though. She also gave up a name: DJ Miss Audry. At the age of eighteen, she was already a prominent fixture on the local club scene, watching and learning from some of the city's best DJs. Over the next twelve years, she went on to become a nationally known DJ who landed her own club gigs across the country.
But last October, Aguilar officially retired DJ Miss Audry, in order to help her mother run Melita's full-time. Now expecting a child of her own, she recognizes that this is a major lifestyle change — but it's a mere blip compared to the challenge she faced eight years ago: In May 2002, Adriana was severely injured in a horrific car accident when her friend and mentor, Derrick Daisey (aka Vitamin D), suffered an epileptic seizure and smashed his Jetta into a telephone pole. Adriana was sitting in the front seat and absorbed most of the contact; she suffered a cracked skull, a collapsed lung, two broken ribs, a punctured eardrum and a broken shoulder blade. And then, in the hospital, a stroke that paralyzed the right side of her body.
Even so, six months later, DJ Miss Audry — still without all of her speaking abilities — was perched in front of a packed house in San Francisco's Kelly's Mission Rock, spinning away as if nothing had ever happened. "People have said that there must be some real strength inside me to have recovered as quickly as I have," she told Westword at the time, "but I really think it was the strength of my mother that saved me."
Today, at 32, Adriana still relies on her mother's strength, following her into a venture for which neither had any background.
"I wasn't looking for this to be a family business," Gibson recalls. "I was looking for a way out of corporate America." Gibson, who'd worked in advertising and marketing, knew she wanted to buy a restaurant — and found one on the web.
"Doesn't everybody buy everything on Craigslist?" her daughter jokes.
Under "business for sale," Gibson spotted a Greek deli at 1035 Lincoln Street, an established business that had been in operation at that location for over three decades — first as the Economy Greek Market (which had originally opened in lower downtown in the early 1900s, then moved to 1035 Lincoln in the mid-'60s), then as Diana's Greek Market and Deli. Gibson decided to name it Melita's. Her middle name is Carmelita, and her family always called her Melita — which she discovered was a Greek name. And although she didn't have a restaurant background, she did have experience fixing up properties. So she set out to "make the penny shine again," as Aguilar puts it.
Gibson thought the last owner had taken the restaurant too far from its Greek roots, so she focused on making Melita's more authentic. There was just one problem. "I don't know if we want to talk about this," she says, "but we're not Greek!"
Luckily, she has some friends who are. Gibson's best friend in college was from Greece, and her father ran a Greek restaurant. This led to Gibson's early interest in both Greek culture and food, giving her a head start in determining what direction to take the restaurant and which recipes to use. And everything she didn't know, she just sorta made up. "I'll play with some recipes and let some of our clients sample them," she explains.
"First she samples them on me," Aguilar jokes.
"I have always had an interest in foreign cuisine made with fresh and healthy ingredients," Gibson continues. "Many of the Greek dishes are not only tasty, but good for you, too."
With her former DJ daughter by her side, Gibson dishes out as much as forty pounds of gyro meat a day, wrapping it in pita bread and selling up to a hundred gyro sandwiches — the restaurant's most popular item. But other traditional Greek dishes are big sellers, too.
Initially, Melita's served just lentil soup, which Gibson describes as "not Greek but Middle Eastern." One day, though, the head cook confessed that he'd been sitting on a recipe for avgolemeno since Melita's had opened but wasn't sure how it tasted. Gibson took a chance on it, and the lemon, chicken and rice soup is now a menu staple. So is spanakopita, which Melita's bakes daily. Melita's also makes falafel from scratch, which means that some unfortunate employee has the task of painstakingly grinding chickpeas by hand for over two hours. The result is a falafel that breaks apart as soon as it touches your teeth, then gives way to a moist, satisfying center with none of the oily aftertaste of a straight-from-the-box version.
"We try to incorporate things made from scratch. People appreciate that," Aguilar says. "Everyone loves homemade food."
Melita's also offers some true originals, including a Greek quesadilla. And Gibson and Aguilar are constantly coming up with "daily creations," as well as special happy-hour sandwiches that they serve after 5 p.m.
In addition to all the homemade food, Melita's still has a market, filled with Greek brands such as Solon, Divinia and Minerva. For generations, people have come from as far as New Mexico to stock up at this address, and the tradition continues under the new ownership. "I'm always surprised by how far people travel to come here," Gibson marvels. "People in their thirties and forties remember their parents bringing them here when they were little."
Aguilar is happy to see customers no matter where they're from, but she's particularly stoked when someone recognizes her as Miss Audry. "There are people who have been following me for years, and it's nice when they finally get to meet me," she says. "They see I'm just a normal person and not a superstar DJ. It's really humbling."
"It's funny to be referred to as 'Miss Audry's Mom' by some of her fans who come into the cafe," Gibson adds. "It makes me really proud to be the mother of a local celebrity."
With the long hours she now puts in at Melita's, a baby on the way and her recent engagement to fiancé Sean Hakes, Aguilar doesn't see herself returning to her old DJ life anytime in the near future. "Creating good food is a little like rocking out a good set on the dance floor," she says. "It's about making people feel satisfied with their experience."
Still, she admits there's always a chance her alter ago could resurface. "I know that would be possible further down the road," she says. "I can always get a babysitter."
See more photos of Melita's on Cafe Society; contact the author at [email protected].