Everyone’s heard tell of struggling Hollywood actors who moonlight as waiters in order to make ends meet.
Today, however, we’re kicking things off with a story about a successful actress — a person with her own hit TV series no less — who rolls up her sleeves at a moment’s notice and slings coffee as need be.
Tracy Spiridakos plays Charlotte "Charlie" Matheson on Revolution, a sci-fi drama that airs on NBC. Tracy is also the daughter of George and Anastasia Spiridakos, owners of the Greek-flavoured Olympia Diner, located at 3253 Portage Ave. George passed away in August 2013 after a long bout with cancer.
When Tracy was in Winnipeg visiting her ailing father, she got a phone call from Anastasia.
"Mom said they were really short-handed at the diner and could I come in for a couple of hours," Tracy says when reached in Texas where she’s busy filming episodes for Season 2 of Revolution. "I cleared tables, made drinks — all that sort of stuff. It was so much fun to come back and hang out for a night; we have a lot of wonderful, familiar faces at the restaurant and being around them is always good for the soul."
Tracy’s co-stars have yet to make it to Winnipeg to sample her family’s fare — Tracy’s brother, Andrew, helps run the restaurant nowadays — but they are more than familiar with the Olympia. (Tracy also worked there when she was a student at Oak Park High School.)
"I talk about it often, usually whilst drooling. I always get a chicken pita — that’s not even negotiable. But I’m a big pastitio fan, too. And moussaka. And calamari. And Andrew makes the best sautéed mushrooms I’ve ever had so I usually make him chef those up for me, too."
Tracy, whose credits also include Rise of the Planet of the Apes, says her father wouldn’t let her return to Tinseltown without a jar of olives or brick of cheese tucked inside her carry-on. "Dad was the greatest," she says. "He was adored by many of the customers; he’d always come out (of the kitchen) offering them tomatoes to take home, or buy them a drink to thank them for coming in. He was stubborn, hilarious, generous… I could go on forever."
George Spiridakos was born in Skala, Greece. He moved to Winnipeg in 1969, studied hairdressing in the early ’70s and promptly got a job at Gerry Greco’s Hair Salon. George met Anastasia, a native of Athens, in Winnipeg. A few years after Tracy was born, the entire family relocated to George’s hometown in southern Greece.
"I was six or seven when we left Canada," says Andrew, 33, who started working at the diner full time five years ago, soon after his father fell ill. "I used to show the kids at school pictures of me with snowbanks over my head and they looked at me like I was speaking a different language." (He wasn’t; Andrew, Tracy and their older brother, Haralambos, are all fluent in their parents’ native tongue.)
The Spiridakoses moved back to Winnipeg in 1992. George established his own business — Athena Painting & Decorating — but by 1999, the self-taught cook decided it was time to do what he’d always dreamed about: open his own restaurant.
George kicked tires all over town before deciding to buy the Olympia from the original owner. (Before its name was changed to the Olympia Diner, the Westwood locale was Winnipeg’s first Boston Pizza outlet.)
"When we took over, the carpet was pink and the walls were green — and not just green, but a bad green," says Andrew, showing a visitor around the square room whose arches and decor have since been repainted white and Aegean blue. Andrew says some consideration was given to changing the sign above the door — the Olympia Diner isn’t really a diner, per se, he admits, because it doesn’t have counter seating nor is it open for breakfast.
"We actually had a contest where we asked customers to come up with a new name. We got a whole bunch of suggestions — mostly typical, Greek-type names like Tower this or Tower that — but none stood out, so we decided to leave it alone."
Andrew credits his dad’s souvlaki for putting the homey, 75-seat nook on the map. Seems the Free Press’s Marion Warhaft agrees; in a glowing, 2012 review, the venerable critic said her entree "had a lovely flavour and was grilled to a perfect moisture." (The souvlaki is also a hit with this city’s NHLers. Forgetting his own sister, Andrew says members of the Jets are the most famous people who’ve ever popped in for lunch or dinner.)
Although George spent his final months in palliative care, he still made an effort to get to the restaurant a couple of times a month. "He’d come in here with tubes and all sorts of things sticking out of him, just to say ‘Hi’ to whoever was in the place. He really missed his customers."
The feeling was mutual; George’s funeral was "packed to the gills," Andrew says, with almost as many patrons, suppliers and business contacts in attendance as friends and family.
Andrew laughs when he is asked if there have been any changes to the menu since he started working alongside his mother on a daily basis.
"Dad never wanted to sell burgers — he refused to make them. But in the last year, we’ve started serving home-style burgers, along with the regular fare," he says, noting the Olympia Burger — that’s an all-beef patty topped with bacon, cheese, chili and the works — is the one folks opt for most often.
Oh, and with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention another bit of fatherly advice George once gave to his middle child, which the latter chose to ignore.
"There was this waitress who started working here about five years ago who I was chasing around," Andrew says. "My dad was always like, ‘Leave her alone already,’ but I didn’t listen to him; I was persistent."
Well, three months ago, Andrew and that waitress — now his wife, Susan — had a son. His name? George.