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A young Stavros “Steve” Dikos photo courtesy Katrina Giavos
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Brandon Fox at the Village Café in 1992 photo by Harry Kollatz Jr.
I was working the night the guy ripped the table off the wall and out of the booth at the Village Café. He'd been there since happy hour, and I'd cut him off. An argument broke out among his companions, and without warning (other than general obnoxiousness and extreme drunkenness), he got up and destroyed the booth. The cook leapt out from behind the line and in front of the deli case across from the booth to save his cheesecakes.
We ejected the guy after that, of course. Actually, I'd already thrown out one of his friends sitting at the table earlier that evening. My future husband was sitting up front that night, and when he tells the story, he says that he saw a big biker coming down the aisle tripping over his feet in an odd way. When the biker passed him, my husband-to-be realized that he was actually being pushed by a waitress barely 5 feet tall with an extremely annoyed look on her face. The biker was saying, "I'm going!" while I was yelling, "Out!"
That was probably a really dumb thing for me to do when you think about all of the other possible outcomes of that scenario. Especially in light of what happened later. But it was a typical Saturday night at the Village (although we didn't lose parts of the restaurant's infrastructure regularly). I was fearless in those days, and it never occurred to me that a highly inebriated customer might turn around and clock me if I pissed him off too much. Fortunately, I shoved a polite biker out the door that night. And later, the cook probably would have stepped in to help me once he saw that his cheesecakes were all right, if I'd needed him to.
The Village Restaurant on Grace Street belonged to Stella and Stavros "Steve" Dikos for more than 25 years. They didn't own it when I worked there (Mike Fleck bought the Village and changed "restaurant" to "café" in 1983), but the place hadn't changed much since those earlier days. Its customers always have been an amalgamation of VCU students, professors, musicians, artists, bikers, drug dealers and bums, along with various people who came there not to be seen. The Village's most famous regular was writer Tom Robbins, who hung out there in the late '50s and early '60s. On the periphery of Robbins' social circle were my parents. They met at the Village in 1960.
That fact alone would make the Village Café sig- nificant to me. However (and more important), the seven years I worked there took a less-than-naive-but-still-sheltered college student to a place where I can confidently say that although I haven't seen all there is to see, my knowledge of the diversity of human nature and the unusual paths it can take was decidedly enlarged.
But it was Stella's, the next restaurant that the Dikoses opened, that explained good food to me. Stella's was the only nice restaurant (as opposed to a bar) that I would take my poor, starving college self to for dinner. Greek cuisine in those days was borderline exotic food. We had pizza and tacos and Chinese, but there wasn't much else to choose from in Richmond. Food full of garlic and lemon was simple, delicious and, under the light hand of Stella Dikos, new to me. The money I spent eating there was worth it, even though I should have been paying bills or perhaps the rent with it. I fell in love with Stella's spanakopita, and it's one of the first recipes that I searched for when I started cooking. I still make it today.
After the Village, I went to work for the Dikoses' daughter, Katrina Giavos, and her husband, Johnny, at the Sidewalk Café. Here, I had to learn that customers weren't the enemy, as those of us at the Village had thought. Customer service? It was a whole new ballgame for me, and on a busy night slammed with people, I had to learn it immediately. I also got to see how Johnny would go through the refrigerator and think about how to put together the specials for the evening. He was still behind the line a few nights of the week then. There was a lot of bar food on the menu of Sidewalk, but Johnny approached the specials differently. I saw how a cook's imagination worked, how ingredients were assembled and reassembled from what was on hand or had just come in.
When I heard of Steve Dikos' death in June, I thought about those years when I was young, and I was astounded to discover how he and the family he started had affected my life. This man I barely knew created businesses that changed the way I thought about work and food and myself. I was wiser after the Village, and nicer after Sidewalk, and Stella's helped to trigger my passion for food. He'll be keenly missed by his family, and numerous friends, former employees and customers, but when I look around Richmond, the domino effect of Dikos' prosaic notion of making a living by running a restaurant with his pretty wife is visible everywhere. Not only wouldn't I be the same person, there's actually a chance that I wouldn't be here at all.