Wanting to open a restaurant (without a partner), Chris went to Pete Pappas and told him about his bad luck; he said he had lost his money and needed a fresh start. "He looked like he was deserving of another chance," says Pete, now 81. Pete asked if he was a gambler.
"Yes," Chris said. "I am."
"Me too," Pete said. "Take whatever you want." He gave Chris all the equipment he needed and told Chris to pay him back when he started making money. "He saw my dad was a risk taker," Dimitri says. "People told him he was crazy trying to sell gyros to cowboys." The walk-up window opened May 1, 1977. They made $15 the first day. A week later Channel 11 and the newspapers came, and customers followed; they cleared $1,100 a day. "They started out gangbusters," Pete says. "It was a gamble going in. I didn't think it was gonna do too good. But I was fooled."
At first they just had picnic tables that they chained down at night. Soon they enclosed a seating area and Eleni hung fake grapes from the ceiling and painted a mural of Athens on the wall. "You could probably pluck it out of Montrose and stick it in Greece," says Michael Massa, the owner of Massa's. "His food is almost better than the food we had in Greece." It was three years before Chris told Eleni the recipe for the fish and chips.
In 1980 they opened Mana, Eleni's steak house a few blocks over. It did well, but Chris wanted to go home. The year Maria started college at the University of Texas in Austin, Chris sold the steak house, left the two oldest boys in charge of Niko Niko's and moved his wife and son to Chios. "They were done," Dimitri says. "He wanted to retire."
But after a few months they were back in Houston. Eleni says they came home because she missed her children. Dimitri says it's a more complicated story, the boys weren't running the place like they should, they were partying instead of paying bills. "My parents freaked out -- we're not very serious people -- but Niko Niko's we take very seriously," Dimitri says. "There's too much depending on it."
Dimitri says Chris didn't feel like the boys were respecting his authority as their father and he was tired of it. He wanted to sell everything and move back to Greece. "He wanted to get out," Dimitri says. But Eleni didn't want to be that far away from her kids -- and she had grown to like America and air-conditioning. Chris wanted her to move with him to Vegas. "I said, 'No. You'll gamble and we'll be out on the street,' " she says. "So we divorce."
She sighs. "It's my fault too," she says. "I'm mean. I cared more for my children." Chris left half the property to Dimitri and half to Eleni -- he told her to take care of his boy and left. She cried every morning and every evening; in between she worked. This was her third divorce, but the other two hadn't hurt this hard because she hadn't cared for the other men as much. "So I work, work, work and forget," she says. She worked from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week. With the money she earned, Eleni paid for her daughter's undergraduate, master's and medical degrees.
In Vegas, Chris started running games again.