Dimitri wanted a Niko Niko's on every block. When he graduated high school he dreamed of opening 150 stores. Pete Pappas told him it's better to have one good restaurant and be able to sleep. "But I wanted more than one," Dimitri says. He rented an old pizza joint on the corner of San Felipe and Winrock. "That's how I got my dad to come back from Vegas," he says. Dimitri needed help, and he didn't want to work with his mother.
The new cafe was a full-service sit-down restaurant with tablecloths, china and linen napkins instead of the bare wood benches, Styrofoam plates and paper towels at his mom's place. It didn't work. "He tried to be too high-class," Pete says.
After a few months Dimitri fired the waiters, moved the register to the front and went back to the old way. But he was 19 years old, and when the money came in, he says, he started doing what his brothers had done when they ran the business: He put his newly earned dollars down G-strings. He had a table at Caligula and stopped paying the bills. "I was going out all the time," Dimitri says. "History was repeating itself." His father told him to straighten up. When he didn't, Chris told him he was on his own and went back to Vegas. Every night, his mother came straight from her restaurant to work at his so he could make enough money to pay the rent. She fried fish in the kitchen, then sang to the customers. "My mother was always there; she stood by my side -- screaming and yelling -- but holding me up," Dimitri says.
He was about to file bankruptcy when someone bought the store. Dimitri took the money to Vegas to patch things up with his father; they played craps for three days, then spent a month in Greece before Dimitri came home to work for his mother. Business boomed.
"It's always struck me as kinda grubby but well loved," Teresa Byrne-Dodge, editor and publisher of My Table, says of Niko Niko's. "I remember sitting under the air conditioner, it leaked on me, dripped on my head. But it's endured." One reason for the popularity, she thinks, is that Greek food is a fairly healthy, low-fat choice. The foods are prepared with simple spices, olive oil, oregano, garlic and lemon, she says. "The flavors are very clear; they're not subtle," she says. "It's not like Mexican cooking -- mole sauce has 20 ingredients. Greek food is a little more straightforward."
It's simpler than other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern foods, says Ben Berryhill, executive chef at Cafe Annie. "Simple is what always turns me on," he says. He goes to Niko Niko's about three times a week, and his wife eats there almost every day. "It's country cuisine; it's home cooking developed to satisfy and satiate and make people feel comfortable and that they've had an experience -- as opposed to fine dining, which is more with the artistic flair and the inspiration and creativity and all that."
He loves that he can get a lamb shank "braised to perfection" that rivals the most expensive restaurants in town, but at Niko Niko's he can eat it on a paper plate.