It wears on you, the nearly 40 years running the beloved Continental Greek Restaurant & Pastry Shop in the University District.
Everything has to end, sometime.
For the Continental, it ends Sunday.
You really couldn’t call yourself a Husky alum if you hadn’t stopped by at least once. This is the revered family-run place that always welcomed you warmly.
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At 4549 University Way N.E., it was the place where University of Washington students went for a souvlaki sandwich, a homemade baklava or a breakfast omelet covered with feta. And then kept coming back as they married and brought in their kids.
It was the place where academic types and new arrivals from everywhere from the Middle East to Africa to Europe found a home.
At that table right by the pastry counter, where older men gathered to play backgammon and talk about this and that, it was just like the town square back in the old country.
“No other University Way restaurant has so long a history as a meeting place for artists and writers,” the late Wesley Wehr, an artist and paleontologist, wrote in his book, “The Accidental Collector: Art, Fossils, and Friendships.”
But the owners are getting older. George Lagos is 82; Helen Lagos is 75.
Their son, Demetre Lagos, who’s been managing the place since his college days, is 57.
If it seemed they were always there to greet you, it’s because they were.
Except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day, they basically worked at the restaurant seven days a week.
Helen Lagos would rise at 2:30 in the morning to drive from the family home in Edmonds to get the place ready, cleaning everything from the kitchen equipment to the floors.
George and Demetre would come in later in the day to keep the place going.
“Vacation? What means ‘vacation’?” says George.
On this afternoon, he’s finally taking a break from the kitchen after the lunch crowd.
Says Demetre, “It was time. I’d rather my folks walk out on their own two feet than on a stretcher.”
Demetre’s wife, Evangelia Lagos, is a translator and real-estate broker. They have three grown children, a granddaughter. It’s time to do things other than run the Continental.
Home away from home
The Lagoses say they came from Greece to the U.S. in 1967 for the same reasons so often given by immigrants: a better life, education for their children. They succeeded.
They already had two sons, Demetre and Taso, now the program director of the UW’s Greece Study Abroad Programs in the Jackson School of International Studies.
A daughter, Katerina Lagos, was born in the U.S. and now is an associate professor of history at California State University, Sacramento, and director of its Hellenic studies program.
George had owned and worked at a coal mine in the old country. Here, he became a journeyman plumber.
But in the early 1970s, with the Seattle economy tanking, plumbing jobs were scarce.
George heard about the Continental being for sale.
“I have a family to feed,” he remembers thinking. He wasn’t a chef, but cooking was part of his traditional Greek culture, and there were always cookbooks for reference.
With a loan from his brother, a dentist here who had sponsored the family’s move to the U.S., George Lagos got a 50 percent stake in the Continental in 1974.
By 1976, the Lagoses were sole owners.
A few doors away from the Continental, there is Costa’s Restaurant also serving Greek food. But that hasn’t seemed to take the sting out of the Continental’s closing.
“Bill Gates’ parents ate there, Paul Allen’s father ate there, and we had grunge bands,” remembers Katerina Lagos, who worked summers there for 20 years. “They’d stay there for four hours. They felt it was their home.”
Ann Conroy has been going to the Continental since the 1970s.
“I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach,” Conroy says about the closing.
She remembers planning her honeymoon trip with her husband, John Givens, at the restaurant, taking their newborn daughter on her first restaurant outing there, and the daughter, now 34, announcing her engagement to her parents at the restaurant.
“After traveling the world, we have come to the conclusion that the restaurant we love the most and the one we’ve celebrated everything in for almost 50 years is the Continental,” she says.
Says Conroy, “I’m so sad for us, but so happy for the Lagoses family: a well-deserved retirement.”
Time to retire
A couple of months ago, the owner of a Hawaii BBQ restaurant up the street approached the Lagos about selling the business. (They don’t own the building.)
OK, they said. It was time.
Zhang Chungen says he’ll still sell — as his restaurant’s name states — barbecued short ribs and chicken, but would like to keep some of the Continental’s mainstays, such as the pastries.
Roger Posadas, who has worked at the Continental for more than 30 years, and makes the pastries, hopes that will happen.
This week, the old customers keep coming back, asking if they could have one of the menus as a keepsake.
And their memories keep pouring out.
Ann Wendell is a 1975 Roosevelt High grad.
“The Continental was my launchpad into adulthood. My boyfriend and I would go there at night and have moussaka and feel completely grown-up,” she writes.
“All around us people were talking ‘Big Ideas,’ often with foreign accents, usually with much gesticulation. It felt so … continental.
“My first year at the UW, it was my study hall/entertainment/refuge. If I looked stressed out, Helen would brew me sage tea and bring it in the long-handled copper pot — it would clear my head, she said, lift my mood and make me brilliant. It was my litmus test for first encounters, first dates, business meetings.”
But sometime late Sunday night, after the last goodbyes, the four-decade run will be over.
Demetre doesn’t know exactly what he’ll do when Monday comes around and there is no Continental to go to.
“I suspect I’ll be lost,” he says.
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org