TARPON SPRINGS — Chris Maillis was crushed when the once world-renowned Pappas Riverside Restaurant closed in September 2005.
He had spent 23 years there as a busboy, a food runner, bartender and manager at the landmark Greek cuisine restaurant on the Sponge Docks. "To walk out of here, turning in the keys, was the worst feeling in the world," said Maillis, 45.
But Maillis is back and so is the restaurant that was started by Louis M. Pappas, an immigrant from Sparta, Greece, in 1925.
While the name has changed to the Riverside Grille House, the building still has the same curved archways and magnificent view of the Anclote River.
And the new owners want to keep a lot of the history while building a new brand. "We are open and we are back," said Maillis, a Tarpon Springs native who is now assistant general manager of the Riverside Grille House. "It's an amazing feeling."
The restaurant reopened Nov. 19. It currently opens for lunch and dinner and plans to add a Sunday brunch soon.
The new owners are Michael Lowe and Victor Holcomb, principals with East Lake LLC. They bought the 50,000-square-foot facility that sits at the entrance of the Sponge Docks in May 2006 for $6.25 million. For nearly three years, the building sat dormant. A portion of the facility reopened as a special events center in April 2009.
Lowe, 67, said it was to their advantage to keep the restaurant closed. It gave them time to get a good understanding of the building's history.
"The objective of the whole puzzle is to maintain the old and marry it with the new," said Lowe, who also owns Captain Jack's across the Anclote River and Catches in New Port Richey. "People come in with memories and based on those memories we got a feel for the fabric and what it meant to people. It's to our advantage to keep the history."
Louis M. Pappas made his Greek salad an American standard when he added a scoop of potato salad to the lettuce, feta cheese, tomatoes and raw peppers. It was something he did while serving as a cook in Gen. John J. Pershing's Army during World War I. He added a scoop of potato salad to help sustain the troops.
The potato salad and the restaurant continued to grow in worldwide repute and in 1975, the Pappas family built the current two-story structure that sits on 2 acres at 10 Dodecanese Blvd.
In 2002, the Pappases sold the restaurant to an ownership group that included a cousin. The group had plans to build a hotel but the restaurant and that effort floundered. The group sold the building to Lowe and Holcomb.
"I wish Mike Lowe all the luck in the world, but it has nothing to do with the Pappas family," said Louis Pappas, 54, whose grandfather started the restaurant. "I hope they carry on the tradition of good quality food for the sake of the town and the Sponge Docks."
City Manager Mark LeCouris said it's a positive to have the restaurant back. About 50 employees have been hired.
"That's the cornerstone of the docks," LeCouris said. "It's better for it to be a restaurant than an empty shell of a building. It's important for the whole docks area for that to be a vibrant business."
That's also the hope of Lowe, who scrapped the idea of trying to add a hotel to the property after market studies determined the move would be a drastic mistake.
Lowe plans to keep some of the traditional Greek dishes while adding a few staples of his own. There will be good steaks and fresh seafood, Lowe said.
More than $1 million has been invested in upgrading the facility.
That includes the steel beams needed to support the roof that has been turned into an outdoor dining area called the Veranda. The rooftop, which has its own bar, provides an unobstructed view of the city and the Sponge Docks.
The ceiling was raised a bit, but the restaurant maintains the original historic characteristics.
The Spartan and Olympian rooms are still two of the four meeting rooms. The original signs mark them. The huge statue of a sponge diver is still there. Much of the restaurant's original art still hangs on the walls.
"You can't build something like this today," Lowe said, while standing on the rooftop. "It's truly a treasure."
But Lowe is still nervous about the undertaking. "It's like a Broadway play," he said. "Every day before you open, you are nervous."
Contact Demorris A. Lee at [email protected] or (727) 445-4174.