Nana sits at the front table of the restaurant just as you walk in the door. She sits under the no smoking sign, a large woman in her 60s with light hair, grey eyes that sparkle, and a pack of cigarettes next to the phone. Nana greets everyone with a smile and tells them to sit anywhere without getting up, to others she opens her arms and pulls you towards her and you get two kisses and a face rub.
Nana is the owner of Telly’s Taverna in Astoria NYC, and her restaurant has become an extension of my family’s home for 20 years. Telly’s Taverna is a Greek restaurant on a block of other Greek restaurants in the largest Greek neighborhood in the City. They are all basically the same, representing the food of southern Greece and the Islands. They are all set up almost identically with a long glass case in front of an exposed kitchen displaying a wonderful array of fresh whole fish that will be char-grilled and brought on a platter with lemon and potatoes. A variety of other Greek specialties are offered, and the menus of most of the restaurants on the block offer the same dishes. There is the usual debate as to the minor but important differences between one restaurant’s approach to a particular recipe, but in the end it is hard to differentiate, especially since they are all simply wonderful. Only one has Nana.
Over the years my family, and many others as well, have been hovered over by Nana. My visits to the family always require the mandatory dinner at Telly’s, and Nana invariably says she has something special she was saving and I will be the recipient of the freshest striped bass, or flounder, or whatever she was saving, along with the two-handed face rub. She stands over our table, at times participating in the family discussions, chiming in and taking sides. She then seems to offer the diner at the next table something”special” that she was saving while petting a baby at the table. She remembers what my father, a notoriously picky eater, always orders and that my brother wants hot sauce with everything.
I know that this kind of service is what good operators practice, but there is a difference here. Nana is sincere and her kisses are kisses of a loved one. Over the past year my family has visted Telly’s less frequently due to the health of my parents, but the dinners are still an important part of our family tradition. I pick it up and take our fish and green salad, gigante beans, and spicy garlic sausage home. Always an extra portion of sausage “For your Father” gets put in the bag along with the hot sauce for my brother. When I leave she kisses me and holds onto my face; she kisses me again and says ” For your Mother.”
Guests bond with restaurants for a variety of reasons. Chefs and menus stand out from their competitors through either the complexity or simplicity of the menu, but some restaurants transcend the commercial and become a part of the fiber of a guest’s life. They become dear friends with the owners and staff and the food becomes part of the family’s tradition. The restaurant table becomes the family table and the restaurant food the family’s sustenance.
Nana and Telly’s are a part of my family’s fiber and cannot be removed. Â I count Nana as one of my greatest mentors as a restaurateur, but her contribution to making me a better person has been immeasurable. I have just come back from a visit and brought some leftovers back for Claudia. The smells from my back seat during the four-hour drive instigated a barrage of memories of my parents and family. I can only hope that we can connect to a few of our guests of REPUBLIC as I have Â connected with Telly’s. I can only try to be as sincere as Nana, when I say that I am very glad to see you.
If ever you are in NYC let me know and I will give you the address.