The George Lagos family operated the Continental Pastry Shop and Restaurant in the University District of Seattle, Washington, from 1974 to 2013. Demetre Lagos tells the family story and its experiences in the restaurant business.
His grandfather, also Demetre, had been in the United States with his brother-in-law Stamatis (Sam) Melonas and some of his patriotes (countrymen) in 1920. They, like many others, were surprisingly mobile and traveled long distances looking for work. They also spent time in Alaska, a territory of the United States at the time. Sam Melonas had an injury that would not heal despite numerous medical treatments. He was told to go to Soap Lake, Washington, where many Greeks had bathed in the mineral waters. When his injury healed, he took it as a sign and decided to remain in Soap Lake where he operated Marina’s Restaurant.
Grandfather Demetre returned to Greece in 1925 where he had sent money to build a home. Tragically, he and his wife were killed during the German occupation of Greece. As a result Demetre’s son John was placed in an orphanage. His son George was able to remain in the village and lived with older siblings. When the Marshall Plan (European Recovery Plan) made adoptions easier, John’s uncle Sam Melonas brought John to the United States in 1951. John subsequently became a dentist in Seattle.
Georgos (George) and Eleni (Helen) Lagos (nee Geralis) are both from Vitala near Kimi on the island of Evia (Euboea). It was previously two separate villages. Vitala and its history can be traced back to antiquity where it is said that Achilles was hidden so as not to participate in the Trojan War. Their son “Demetre” (Demetrios) Lagos was born in Vitala on September 18, 1955, and his brother “Taso” (Anastasios) in 1959. A third child, Katerina was born in Seattle in April of 1968.
In Vitala, life for Demetre was fairly comfortable. He remembers playing in the village square and the small avli (courtyard) of the local church. Christmas and Easter were special occasions and in the summers the family would erect little huts in the beach area of Evia. Demetre’s maternal grandmother was very close and helped raise the children. On their property there was a large deposit of lignite, a brown combustible sedimentary rock similar to coal, which George sold for heating in the winters.
Demetre recalls learning of President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 but, as a 12-year-old, he knew very little about the United States. In 1967, John Lagos was able to bring George, Eleni, Demetre and Taso to Seattle with the primary purpose of securing a good education for his nephews. It was Demetre’s first time on an airplane or a ferry boat and he remembers arriving in Seattle on a Saturday, going to St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church on Sunday, and starting school on Monday. He knew no English and felt as if he was “on display” with his short pants while his fellow students wore jeans and informal shirts. When he came home, he told his parents he would not return to school unless he could dress like the other children. Because of the excellent mathematics preparation he had received in Greece, that subject was not a problem for him in the American school system. However, social studies and English were a challenge and he often felt as if he were in a fog during his early days in Washington. His teachers at Lynnwood Junior High School were very helpful and he does not remember being treated differently as a Greek immigrant. Rather, other children were at somewhat of a loss as to how to react to his presence.
The family first lived in an apartment then moved to a home in Shoreline, just north of Seattle, where George worked for a plumbing company. By that time Demetre transferred to Meadowdale Junior High School and was able to keep up in regular classes. He learned about new American ways by playing baseball and delivering newspapers and, when in the 10th grade, began working at the Grocery Boy store in nearby Lynnwood. Attending St. Demetrios on Sundays with shined shoes and clean clothes and playing soccer in the Edmonds stadium helped Demetre retain the culture he brought from Greece. He graduated from Meadowdale High School in 1973 and began attending the University of Washington in Seattle. Like his uncle, John Lagos, Demetre was considering dentistry and took a number of preparatory courses for that field of work. However, his heart was not in it and after his third year at the University, his life took a different course.
Spiro Savvides (see SPIRO’S FINEST HOURS) and Costa Antonopoulos (see A CULINARY PHILOSOPHER) were partners at the Continental Restaurant and Pastry Shop in Seattle’s University District. At the time it was the closest thing to a kafenion (Greek coffee shop) in Seattle. In January of 1974 George’s plumbing work had all but ceased and Savvides wanted to sell. George and Eleni figured they had nothing to lose and would try the restaurant business for a year or so. They purchased Savvides’ portion and partnered with Antonopoulos for a few months until Costa sold to Charles Tine. Demetre helped his family occasionally, mostly during the University District street fairs. In the spring of 1976, when Demetre took a break from his studies, he was given the opportunity of partnering with his family at the Continental. At that time he decided to help his parents and avoid the possible friction with partners outside the family. The years passed quickly. The Lagos family and the Continental were a permanent match. While Demetre’s work progressed at the Continental, brother Taso went on to earn his PhD from the University of Washington and sister Katerina has ultimately become an assistant professor at Sacramento State University in California.
In 1975, 20-year-old Demetre had just received his United States citizenship and traveled to his family home in Greece. There he knew Evangelia Mandrakas as her sister and Demetre were in the same grade in elementary school and their parents were also acquainted. After a few years of correspondence with Evangelia and an improving economy in Seattle, Demetre returned to Greece in 1980 where he and Evangelia were married. When he returned to Seattle with his bride, Demetre made sure Evangelia would have the mobility she needed to navigate her way in the new environment. He first helped her obtain a driver’s license so she would be able to visit friends, attend church, run errands or even pursue further education.
As Demetre says, one may make plans for their life, but things just happen. Accordingly, their first child, George, was born on June 24, 1981. A daughter, Eleni, followed on June 17, 1984, and Katerina “Nina” was born on September 24, 1987. Demetre and Evangelia have one granddaughter, also Evangelia (Eva). While Demetre is pleased that his children and grandchildren keep the Greek traditions of church, food, music and dance, he knows their lives will also be enriched by the heritage of their spouses.
Demetre’s connections between Washington State and his home town of Vitala run deep. The Valisarakos family in Cashmere, Washington, and the Lambros family in Renton, Washington, both came from Vitala. Another patrioti (countryman), Vasili Varlamos, came from Vitala at the same time as Demetre’s uncle John, the dentist. On one occasion in Vitala Demetre was surprised by an elderly man who asked about the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, having passed through many years before. And, on one occasion when a pedestrian heard Greek music coming from the Continental, he entered, and after a brief exchange with Demetre, determined that Demetre had married the man’s thea (aunt) Maria’s granddaughter from Vitala.
With a full schedule managing the Continental, Demetre cherished the little spare time he had in activities with his children. And, while he was not a participant in AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association), he did participate with the Seattle Greek-American soccer team. He humorously tells the story of the team’s lackluster performances against more proficient athletes.
Demetre’s 37 years of experience in the restaurant business have provided him with many stories and insights. The Continental first opened as a kafenion (coffee shop) and gift shop evolving into a bakery and delicatessen by the mid-1960s. There were few other restaurants in the University District area at the time. The Lagos family slowly expanded the space, finding there was an increasing demand for Greek food. George did most of the cooking and over time trained others to assist him. The Continental featured the core Greek foods (gyros, spanakopita, moussaka and pastitsio) and was known for its authentic Greek salad, thick zadziki sauce and lentil soup. All of the Lagos children and grandchildren have worked at the Continental at one time or another. Demetre believes the family members developed a strong work ethic and more importantly learned how to work in a close environment and how to treat others.
For Demetre, it is the Greek psyche, the desire to be involved with other people, to take charge of matters and to handle several things at once that make their restaurants successful. Additionally, cooking is a revered tradition from the classical period in Greece where food plays an important part in life with a healthy cuisine that optimizes seasonal availability of food. Plus, if you operate a restaurant, you can be sure of the source and quality of what you are eating. Working long hours has not been a problem for most Greeks including the Lagos family. They came to Seattle for work, a better life and education. Where many Greeks used their restaurants as “stepping stones” to property ownership and capital accumulation, the Lagos family kept what they had and focused on providing a landmark dining experience in Seattle.
Demetre views the competition from other restaurants as a challenge to do a better job and to move to a higher level of quality and service. Since George and Eleni purchased the Continental, many more restaurants have opened in the area, each with its own feeling, ambiance and, most importantly, its own people who make the difference.
In 2013 the Continental served its last customer. George and Eleni were aging, their children had achieved their desires outside of the restaurant and, for Demetre, it was time for him to have more flexibility and see his children’s children. He notes how the Greek cuisine has evolved and become part of the “whole food” movement. Healthy foods such as olive oil and yogurt have been incorporated into many diets. He wonders whether the popularity of Greek food is passing as a new cycle of ethnic restaurants comes into being. Finally, he believes it is unlikely that future generations of Greek-Americans or Greek immigrants will choose to work in restaurants rather than high-tech or electronic industries.
For Demetre his experience as a Greek in Seattle has been positive. He knows that hard work and honesty will avert any trouble unless one looks for it. He knows his family has benefited from a country where people can succeed, unlike the conditions and economic situation that exist in Greece.
The Lagos family has provided a family table for hundreds of customers and friends over the years. And, as Demetre says, “Come and sit with us. There is always enough room for good people at the table.”By John and Joann Nicon, (date when posted) PHOTOS
1 Demetre serving at his home, 2014
2 Vitala, Euboea, Greece, 1975
3 George and Eleni Lagos, 1950s
4 Demetre, 1973
5 George, Demetre, George and Eleni at the Continental, 1985
6 Evangelia and Demetre, mid 1990s
7 Eleni, Nina and George, 1990
8 Demetre Lagos family (l-r) George, Eleni, Nina, Evangelia, Demetre, circa 2000
9 George Lagos family (l-r) Eleni, Eleni, Evangelia, Demetre, Taso, George, circa 2000
10 Demetre and Evangelia, 2013
11 The Continental, circa 2000
12 At the family table (l-r) Demetre, George, Sophia Everett, Katerina LaMarche, Eleni LaMarche, Evangelia, 2000s
13 Continental closing, (l-r) George, Will Sharp, Eleni, Demetre, 2013
Photo 1 by John Nicon; 5 courtesy The Stranger; 11 www.citysearch.com; 13 courtesy Seattle Times; all others from Lagos family collection SOURCES
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, April 2014; Seattle Times, June 29, 2013; www.tomaytotomaaahto.com by Ruby Rasa