On a Thursday, around 3 p.m., the crowds have just started to die down at the Mediterranean Restaurant in downtown Asheville. Pete Apostolopoulos stands in front of the grill he’s manned for 39 years. With your face buried in the menu, you hear the sound of his spatulas scraping across the flattop. It’s a long scrrrraaaaape, followed by a quick and rhythmic tap-tap-tap, all in perfect syncopation, tempo and timing. It sounds, smells and looks the same way it has for the past four decades. In fact, as you pick up the newspaper off the counter, sip on your coffee and listen to the servers call out orders while waiting for your BLT, you can easily feel transported back in time.
“We still serve the same food,” says Paula Apostolopoulos, Pete’s wife. “We have done some updates and added some new foods, but we still have the basic meat and three vegetables.”
The Med opened in 1969, which makes it the oldest operational restaurant in downtown Asheville. The Apostolopoulos family bought it in 1975. It has always served a simple menu of breakfast and lunch, and no dinner.
Pete moved to Asheville from Greece in 1967 at the age of 17. Immigrating through Ellis Island, he caught the train to North Carolina and has been here ever since. He worked at a McDonald’s for a year and a half to learn English, and worked with his cousins for eight years at their restaurant, the recently closed Athens Restaurant, until he bought the Med.
“This is the only town that I have lived in the United States is Asheville. I absolutely love Asheville,” says Pete. “I have seen the downtown from the times when everything was abandoned. There were four restaurants back then, and now we have 84.”
Of those 80-plus restaurants, fewer and fewer are diners, the last bastion of affordable, blue-collar food in an increasingly expensive city. For some, it is the end of an era, the eclipse of a golden age of American cuisine.
“It’s a lot harder work than people think,” says David Hinson, owner of Tastee Diner in West Asheville. “So many people get into this business, and before you know it, they’re out of it. There’s more to it than just opening and closing. I get a couple days off through the week, but I’ve still got an 80-hour week, easily. But you just have to have a passion for it.”
In the summer of 1946, Morris Brown and his brother converted their old service station into the diner. In 1989, Hinson took over the business, and over all the time that’s passed, not much has changed at the diner.
“You get people that moved away years ago, and they come back and say, ‘This tastes just like it did when I lived here,'” Hinson reports. “We have a reputation. There are a lot of processed foods out there, but we still do everything homestyle and make a lot of things from scratch. I think our breakfast is far better than pretty much anything else out there. The crowd speaks for itself.
“I worked for a steel company and was looking for something different, and I ended up here,” Hinson says. He worked for Westinghouse as a steel fabricator, but after 11 years on that job, he was “tired of being treated like a number,” he recalls.
Which begs the question, what makes someone want to run a diner? The margins are razor thin, because you have to keep the prices dirt cheap; the hours are long and continuous, with little to no time off; and the tables turn over twice as much as a regular restaurant, with a quarter of the gratuity. So why on earth would you do it?
“They say that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree,” says Pete Apostolopoulos. “My dad was a cooper, making wine barrels back in Greece. He was in such demand, and me and his grandsons would always tell him, ‘Dad, you are not charging enough for what you do.’ And my dad’s answer was always, ‘It might not be enough for me, but it is always too much for whoever is paying it.’ And we look at the restaurant that way. You have people working in shops that are not making a whole lot of money, and they have to eat somewhere too. And what makes this place so successful is those people. You have the lawyers and the bankers, but you also have us little people. We try to keep it that way.” In fact, the Med waited nearly three years to make slight increases in its prices recently, which is astounding, considering how much food costs have risen.
Patricia Sellas and her husband are the new owners of Five Points Restaurant, a diner just north of downtown. She’s originally from Poland. “For me, coming from a communist country, I’m used to hard work,” she says. “My husband, he is the same. … He works seven days a week. But as for my kids, I want my son to go to college, I want him to have a job with paid vacation time. I think a lot of other immigrant parents are looking at it the same way. We are very successful, but we would like our children to succeed in a different way. It is just a hard business to survive in.”
Patricia wound up in New York City while on vacation after completing high school, she says, and decided to stay and study human resource management and business law. She supported herself by waiting tables, rising up the ranks to manager and eventually meeting her husband, Louie. He came to the U.S. from Greece at the age of 16. Working as a dishwasher in Baltimore, he eventually worked his way up to ownership of an establishment in New York City and now has over 40 years of restaurant service.
There’s something about people who feel called to feed others that you inherently trust. Nowhere is that more clear than in the lives of the diner owner. “It’s fun, it really is,” says Sellas. “Working with the same people every day, seeing all the familiar faces coming in the door, it’s like a family. It really becomes your second home.”