Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Steve's? No, Steve's!

Long-standing Portage Avenue burger joint reborn as upscale dining room a few years ago, but Steve? Well, he's still just Steve

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This must be the place.

Four years ago next month, Steve's Place, a no-nonsense, home-style burger joint, was reborn as Steve's Bistro, a stylish, upscale dining room.

Not everybody got the memo.

"Every once in a while, somebody comes in, takes a look around and goes back outside to double-check the address on the door," says owner Steve Kandilakis, offering a visitor a Greek espresso. "Then they come back inside and ask, 'What happened?'"

To answer their question: Kandilakis began thinking about switching from fat boys and fries to caramel pork tenderloin and spinach-stuffed chicken about six years ago. Originally, he figured he would sell Steve's Place, located in a strip mall at 3123 Portage Ave., and reopen in a different location.

But after doing some research, Kandilakis concluded his neck of the woods didn't have anything similar to what he had in mind, so he decided to stay put and renovate.

"My original plan was it would look like Steve's Place, only nicer. But as I got more involved with my designers, I realized that wasn't going to work," Kandilakis says, noting the final bill came to -- where are the producers of Restaurant Makeover when you need them? -- $300,000.

Here's the deal: there isn't one iota of Steve's -- not the elegant wrought-iron gate that greets diners, not the modish sequence of gold and olive-tinted arches, not the leather-cushioned, ladder-back chairs - that was there pre-bistro.

"I even thought about changing the name of the place to Chloe's (his daughter), but in the end we decided we wanted our old customers to know it was still us."

This year marks 30 years since Kandilakis turned his back on a successful career as a hairstylist (more on that in a bit) to become a restaurateur. To mark the occasion, we decided to take a look back at Steve's Place, Steve's Bistro and, well... Steve.

-- -- --

Stefanos Kandilakis was born in Greece in 1955. He was six years old when his family left Crete for Athens, and 13 when his parents announced move No. 2, to Winnipeg.

The Kandilakises arrived in Manitoba in October 1968. Their first home was on Sherbrook Street, a few blocks away from Dufferin School, where Kandilakis and his younger brother, Mikalos, were enrolled.

Kandilakis's first day at his new school was memorable, for all the wrong reasons. After getting teased during recess, Kandilakis got into a scrap with a couple of his classmates. He was hauled down to the principal's office. But because his English was so poor -- about all he knew was "excuse me" and "thank you" -- Kandilakis couldn't tell his side of the story, and was transferred to Lord Selkirk School on Henderson Highway for disciplinary reasons.

Kandilakis graduated from Gordon Bell Collegiate. He studied interior design at the University of Manitoba for one year then switched gears. He signed up at Scientific Marvel School of Hairstyling. The reason: "I wanted to meet women."

Kandilakis cut hair for five years -- two in Winnipeg, three in Greece.

"I had a huge clientele (in Greece); famous singers would send their chauffeur to pick me up. Then they'd take me out on their cruise ships, for a ride."

In 1983, Kandilakis was approached by his friend, George, of George's Burgers and Subs fame. His chum asked if he wanted to go in on a new George's that was opening on Westwood Drive. Kandilakis agreed. Six years later, Kandilakis struck out on his own by opening Steve's Place, at his present-day location.

-- -- --

Brenda Keats grew up in St. James. She remembers going to Steve's Place for take-out years ago.

In January, Keats had lunch at Steve's Bistro and was so impressed with the new look that she approached the owner and asked if she could host a wedding dinner there for her son and daughter-in-law-to-be.

"The jazz duo along with the candlelit tables created a lovely ambience," Keats said, a few weeks after the celebration. "My son even shared a dance with his new bride."

A few regulars from the old days still pop in from time to time, Kandilakis says. But in a lot of ways, changing over to Steve's Bistro was like starting over from scratch, he adds.

"The bigger names who come in -- the doctors, the lawyers... people like the Chipmans -- never set foot in here before," Kandilakis says.

Just don't expect to see a "wall of fame" honouring customers like Fred Penner or Sylvia Kuzyk anytime soon. Besides a gallery of works by Winnipeg artist Andrew Lennard Taylor, the only adornment Kandilakis allows in the 72-seat room is a soccer trophy behind the bar. It was awarded to Blue United Soccer Team -- that's BUST for short -- a 35-and-over women's squad Kandilakis coaches.

"The team won the Winnipeg Women's Soccer League's master division last summer and also just finished winning the indoor title, as well," boasts their mentor.

-- -- --

You can still get a burger at Steve's. But it's not the typical, Greek-style burger Winnipeggers have grown accustomed to.

"Everybody associates fat boys with Greece. Don't ask me why, because there is no chili or gravy in Greece," Kandilakis says with a laugh. "We serve a Greek burger, but we use certified Angus beef, topped with feta (cheese) and roasted red peppers. Which is about as Greek as you can get, if you ask me."

As for other items on the menu -- entrées like pan-seared, whisky-glazed lamb chops and pan-fried, cornmeal-crusted pickerel -- most are variations on recipes Kandilakis has read about (he has a personal library stocked with more than 100 cookbooks) or meals he tried during trips to Greece to visit his parents, who returned to Athens in the late 1970s.

"When it really comes down to it, going to all those different restaurants (in Greece) is what inspired me do something like this in the first place. At the time, a lot of people told me it wasn't the sort of thing somebody should be doing at my age but hey, it's worked out pretty good so far."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2013 E3

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