The scene inside Pete's Kitchen is a little chaotic, with several booths cordoned off by yellow caution tape; takeout orders being assembled at the diner counter where customers would normally sit shoulder to shoulder, enjoying coffee and breakfast; and guests shuffling left and right, back and forth, to respect the personal space of others — which these days is a six-foot radius.
But at least food is being cooked and sold and enjoyed, which isn't true at all of the Denver restaurants founded by Pete Contos and run by his family since he passed away just over a year ago. In fact, out of five establishments — Pete's Kitchen, Pete's Central One, Pete's Satire Lounge, Pete's University Park Cafe and Pete's Greek Town — Pete's Kitchen and Pete's Central One were the only two to offer takeout after Governor Jared Polis ordered the halt of in-house service on March 17 because of the coronavirus pandemic. And Pete's Kitchen was the first to reopen for on-premises dining after the order was lifted (with restrictions) on May 27.
Contos was born in Greece but came to Denver in 1955, working his way up the ladder in the restaurant industry and saving money to buy his own place. In 1962, he and his wife, Elizabeth, took over the already well-known Satire Lounge at 1920 East Colfax Avenue from Sam Sugarman, and ran it for more than 25 years before opening Pete's Kitchen next door. The diner was being run by someone else at the time; Pete and Elizabeth bought the building and then took over operations in 1988 after the original eatery went out of business. Since then, though, the '50s-era neon sign with its image of a chef flipping pancakes has become a singular icon of Contos's contribution to Denver's restaurant scene — and that's why I'm meeting the entire family in a back booth at Pete's.
Present are Elizabeth, son Dean Contos, daughter Nikki Phillips and grandson Alex Barakos. Nikki's husband, also named Dean, is busy running the kitchen, so only joins us long enough for a photo. But the rest of the clan is more than willing to sit and talk about the legacy of Pete Contos, the difficulties of the past year, and their plans to continue on as a restaurant family.
"It's been a tough two months, and it's been a tough year," Nikki says, ticking off first the death of her father, then the closing of Pete's Gyros Place in January, followed by the onset of the pandemic.
"It was like they said, 'One, two, three, you're out,' but we're not out yet," adds Elizabeth, who ran back-of-the-house operations for their eatery empire for sixty years while her husband ran the front.
Until recently, Pete's Kitchen had been one of Denver's few 24/7 restaurants, serving the needs of Colfax residents; visitors to the area's many bars, clubs and music venues; and other night owls who flocked here from across the city. But without the nightlife, there's not much demand for food after the main dinner rush, so the diner currently is only open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
But while the volume of customers is not what it used to be, the regulars never went away. "Some of our customers come in two or three times a day," Nikki points out. "If they don't show up, our waitresses will check up on them."
Despite that care for customers, business at Pete's Kitchen has always been "eat and get the hell out," Dean explains, since there's always another person waiting for a seat, and most diners are on their way somewhere else, whether it's a concert, a bar date or a pre-dawn trip home. But Pete's Kitchen has always been more than just a place to get a fast meal: It's also a community hub, albeit one that now keeps members of that community at a safe distance.
Across the parking lot, the Satire Lounge remains closed; the family plans to reopen it, but first needs to figure out how to operate a bar without an actual bar, since regulations don't allow for seating at a counter where drinks or food are being prepared. "That's where business gets done; that's where people want to be," Dean says of both the bar at the Satire and the counter at Pete's Kitchen.
The other restaurants will slowly reopen, the family promises. Central One, which has been serving takeout meals from 5 to 8 p.m. nightly, will likely be next, since it has momentum and demand. But adjustments are being made on the fly because purveyors have had to change strategies, too. There have been shortened delivery days, out-of-stock items and a switch in focus to single-serving condiments, not to mention the "gallons and gallons of hand sanitizer," Dean points out. And the menu has changed a little since March. For example, they dropped fried calamari, formerly the top-selling appetizer, from the takeout menu because it doesn't travel well. "And can you imagine flaming saganaki to go?" he quips.
It wouldn't make sense to reopen the University Park Cafe this summer, since University of Denver students won't be around, and Nikki says that fall is uncertain, too, because when DU will get back to business is still unknown. "We were anticipating huge business right before the shutdowns," she recalls, mentioning the hockey championship games that were canceled and the graduation celebrations that happened online instead of at neighborhood restaurants — after an overall uptick in business because of what had been a booming economy until March. "But we know that we're not in this boat alone," she adds.
The family gave away perishables to employees after they closed the restaurants, and now carefully weigh reopening schedules to make sure that when they do rehire, they won't have to turn around and lay off people again in a few months. And they count themselves lucky that Pete and Elizabeth had the foresight to purchase the restaurant buildings (along with other properties) as they opened their eateries.
"Pete and I made it through four economic downturns, but this one is so much different," Elizabeth explains. "I'm glad he's not here to see this. Letting go of all of our employees would have been so hard for him. His whole idea was always 'I employ these people, I feed their families — I can't go out of business.'"
And they all agree that Pete would have hated wearing a mask. "Face to face, that's how you get things done, that was the attitude," Dean says.
"Hospitality looks a lot different with a mask on," adds Alex, the youngest in the family to join the management team. Alex never lived in Denver; he grew up in Arizona and just graduated with a degree in hotel and restaurant management from Northern Arizona University. But he helped out with the business during the summer as he was growing up, and he just moved to Denver, where he's staying at his grandmother's house.
Nikki and Dean says that Alex is bringing new ideas to all of Pete's restaurants, and that he often surprises them with bits of knowledge. "Things come out of Alex's mouth and we think he's channeling his inner grandfather," Dean notes.
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"If we get through this, and we will, nothing else will stop us," Alex says. Among his projects are advertising and connecting with customers through social media, looking to see how takeout can fit into the long-term business model (it was never much of a moneymaker before COVID-19), and figuring out how to set up expanded outdoor seating in the parking lot between Pete's Kitchen and the Satire. Permission has already been granted by the city, but he's still working out the logistics of service and volume.
Still, smothered burritos, burgers and fries, or gyros omelets under the stars — with Pete Contos looking down on the parking lot from the mural on the wall of his first bar — seems like an appropriate way to enjoy nighttime on Colfax Avenue.
It's been a tough year for a tough family that has not just survived, but thrived on one of Denver's toughest streets. "We haven't had a normal grieving process because we're embedded in all of this," says Nikki, gesturing around the dining room to the counter, the waitresses and the photo of her father on the wall.
"If it wasn't for my family, it would have been impossible to get this far," Elizabeth adds. "Pete may be gone, but he's not out of here. He's still on this street."