Niko Niko’s

History

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Chris always said if he ever married again, Eleni was the only woman he wanted. He never stopped loving her. Chris's father died in 1995; he and Dimitri went to the funeral in Chios. Back in the States, Chris didn't want to leave Dimitri again. Eleni was grief-stricken by her former father-in-law's death too, so they comforted each other. They never legally remarried because they felt they were still married in God's eyes.

One day, two and a half years ago, 62-year-old Chris didn't feel well. "He just seemed real draggy," Dimitri says. He had a bypass that afternoon. Chris started walking on the treadmill and getting better. He wanted to go to Greece to see his mother. Eleni asked Chris to wait a couple of months so she could go with him. Her daughter was buying a house and she wanted to help her move. "Please stay," Eleni begged. But he left.

Chris's mother died August 8; two days later he got a fever; a week later, he was in the hospital. Eleni flew across the ocean, but he died while she was on the plane. "I have very bad luck," she says. The whole island came to the funeral. Talking about it, Eleni's eyes are wet; she clenches her fist and won't let the tears fall.

She wears Chris's wedding band on her right hand. Living downstairs from her daughter, she plays with her four-year-old granddaughter, cooks, cleans, works in the restaurant and spends her nights watching the three Greek channels on her satellite dish. Usually she volunteers at the church's annual Greek Fest, but this year she was too sad to laugh and joke and tell people that Greek coffee will improve their sex life. She tells Dimitri she needs to die soon so his father won't find another woman in heaven.


Fries are boiling; pita bread is browning on the grill; slabs of lamb and beef spin and sweat. By 11:21 Friday morning, the line at Niko Niko's stretches into the back. Dimitri, 28, stands at the counter in his black rubber Birkenstocks looking like an extraordinarily friendly bouncer; he takes orders, greets customers and answers the phone all at once. He tears through the line calling every woman "dear" or "sweetheart" in a way that's endearing, not irritating. Behind him three women work double-time: One slices the gyros; another spoons up tzatziki sauce; the third slices and peels potatoes all day. Dimitri bought the restaurant from his mother three years ago. He's trained the staff so they all know how to do each other's jobs. "Like a casino where all the dealers switch from table to table every 20 minutes," Dimitri says. "Everybody should know every game here."

"Can I get the dog-mates?" asks a guy with a thick Texas accent.

"Dolmades," Dimitri says, correcting his pronunciation for stuffed grape leaves. He says it'll take about 15 minutes. The guy looks upset and orders a shish kebab (which takes about the same time).

"Where you going, man?" Dimitri asks. "You in a rush?"

The food Niko Niko's sells isn't fast food -- the Mexican women in the kitchen may serve it in ten minutes -- but the roasted potatoes boil on the stove for two hours then cook in the oven another 30 minutes. In the back, one woman is patiently painting butter onto strips of phyllo dough as she layers baklava; another is slicing the fat off 20 pounds of baby lamb shanks. She's going to spend all afternoon seasoning and roasting them.

The lamb kebab is thrown on the chargrill, and flames engulf it; the air smells like spiced meat and mushrooms. By noon the tables are all full. Customers are standing around, and bags of to-go orders line the counter. Dimitri recently donated the pink-and-blue home he grew up in to indigent housing; the house will be picked up and moved to a new location, so there will be room to expand the restaurant. He wants to add another ten tables. No matter what time of day, Niko Niko's is packed. The lunch crowd tapers off just as the dinner rush begins. Dimitri watches the windows, and if he sees a homeless person wave to him or pet his German shepherd, Athena, Dimitri orders a gyro or fries to go. If someone is hungry, he feeds them.

While he works the register, Dimitri tastes every sauce and soup that is made before it's served. He can tell if something needs a pinch of salt or another clove of garlic. "Shit," he says. "All I know how to do is eat."

At 12:45 Eleni arrives. Her daughter accidentally took Eleni's car keys, so Eleni begged the men painting her house to drive her to Niko Niko's. She stands by the counter in a gray pantsuit smiling and greeting customers. She doesn't have to yell at anyone nowadays, the staff is so well trained. She gently says "Señora" and gestures to a table that needs cleaning, but there's an urgency in her eyes that the staff doesn't miss.

Pete Pappas has been telling Dimitri it's time for him to expand the business, and Eleni hates retirement. She wants to evict Dimitri from his home next door and open a Greek bakery. She doesn't like sitting at home drinking coffee, doing nothing, feeling old.

She wants to work.