As north Winnipeggers mourn the closing of Kelekis Restaurant, west Winnipeggers are warming up to a new burger spot in their end of town.
On Jan. 7, Gus & Tony’s at the park opened up at 2015 Portage Ave., the latest addition to the number of Greek-themed and owned restaurants that dot Portage Avenue in St. James.
For the namesake father-and-son team behind the restaurant, Gus and Tony Vailas, it’s a story of firsts and lasts.
For Gus, a 60-year-old aircraft mechanic by trade, it’s restaurant number four. For Tony, a 25-year-old Red River College hospitality and tourism major, it’s restaurant number one.
"This is a big project for us," said the younger Vailas, who spent the last five years as the food and beverage manager for the Hilton hotel chain in the city.
"I’ve been twisting my dad’s arm for the last number of years. It’s something I thought we could do really well together."
Tony’s ambition was born from his father’s.
Shortly after arriving in Canada in the late 1970s, Gus bounced between two jobs. On weekends, he was a young mechanic working for Standard Aero; on weekends, a pizza-slinger for Santa Lucia to earn extra cash.
By the mid-80s, Gus and a friend took on their first restaurant — a Junior’s restaurant on Henderson Highway. After a couple years, Gus cashed out and moved his family back to Greece.
For the last two decades, he has stuck with that pattern, moving back and forth between Greece and Winnipeg while juggling his passion for turbine engines and a clean set of grills.
In the mid-90s, he owned The Burger Place across from St. James Collegiate, and in the mid-2000s, owned Daly Burgers on Corydon Avenue.
"When October comes, something happens," said Gus, noting Winnipeg’s winters usually have him pining for his home country.
"I love it there and I like it here, too. I’m a guy who believes he has to do what he has to do."
When Gus last returned to Winnipeg in 2008, he and Tony began combing the city for restaurant space, waiting patiently for the right location to hit the market.
When the former Park Tower restaurant space opened up last fall (and whose owners now work at the Nook & Cranny), they quickly scooped it up.
The elder Vailas knew if he didn’t bite then, the chances of opening one last restaurant would quickly escape him.
"I love this and I missed it," said Gus, whose family has spent more than 30 years living in St. James.
"Having a place in St. James felt really nice. This is home."
The Vailas’s trace their roots to Santorini, an island and popular tourist destination in the southern Aegean Sea, about 200 kilometres from mainland Greece.
Those roots are reflected throughout the 85-seat restaurant, from its pale, ocean blue walls, to Gus’ collection of soccer scarves, to Tony and his wife’s original photography of the island.
After spending more than $100,000 remodelling the space and purchasing new kitchen equipment, the pair recruited a pair of Gus’s old cooks. They have built their menu around homemade burgers, fries, pitas, souvlaki and a signature Greek salad.
"I enjoy to serve people and to talk to people, and I’m very proud of the food we hand out," said Gus.
"We understand the niche of what people are looking for," Tony added.
"We know we’re middle of the road in pricing, and still have a nice atmosphere."
The sit-down restaurant has also been quick to attract old customers and older friends.
"We know most of the people who walk into this place," said Gus, noting he’s back to working seven days a week. "It’s hard work, but very exciting."
Added Tony: "It’s a big reward knowing you have a name and reputation."
Gus & Tony’s at the park is open daily from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
For more info, or reservations, call 204-414-5508.
A full menu can be found at www.greekrestaurantwinnipeg.com.