Ernest Charles stands in the back parking lot of Roast Grill and laments that it isn’t fig season. “Otherwise I’d give you the most delicious, most red fig you’ve ever seen from that tree right over there.”
We walk over to a small, fenced-in patio behind the building. The tree, he says, was planted from seeds that came from his parents’ native Greece at least 75 years ago, poised to shade the bedrooms above the restaurant.
It has been on the Charles property at least 25 years longer than the faded “HOT WIENERS” sign out front. Yet both are historical artifacts of a rich entrepreneurial food culture in the South and in Raleigh.
In the early 1900s through the 1940s, Raleigh boasted dozens of restaurants started by Greek immigrants and refugees who, fleeing war, turned to food for sustenance and livelihood, a touch and taste of home. In them they found a niche in a thriving downtown community hungry for home-cooked lunches. Places like the City Sandwich Shop, Raleigh Sandwich Shop, Sanitary Café and Busy Bee Restaurant (in the current Busy Bee location and Club Bon Air (which doubled as an entertainment lounge). One anecdotal account claims a Raleigh-based trio of Greeks opened its 15th restaurant in North Carolina by 1909.
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Restaurants were the answer for someone with limited English, providing opportunities for whole families. Or as Ernest Charles says as we hustle through a back screen door into the Roast Grill’s tiny kitchen. “What does a Greek do when he meets another Greek? They open a restaurant!”
Ernest and his three older siblings were born in the home above the Roast Grill. He won’t tell me how old he is, but he vaguely remembers the tree sprouting up. I grab a scruffy leaf and roll it between my fingers. Even without the fruit, fig leaves carry a deep, sweet aroma that lingers like all enduring memories. For most Greek-Americans, both the musty scent of figs and a whiff of meat grease burning on a flat-top grill bring out an immersive feeling of nostalgia.
Living 15 years in the Triangle, I never imagined to find this beautiful, subtle homage to my Greek heritage growing from North Carolina asphalt.
In the kitchen his nephew, George Poniros, hovers over a huge pot set on a small gas stove to finalize one last thing before he flips the hand-written “open” sign in the front window. He skims a spoon over simmering chili, its secret spices pooling into glowing red foam at the top. He tastes a drop and tosses the spoon into the sink. The chili is ready.
For generations, Roast Grill has served nothing but grilled hot dogs – now $2.50 each, charred to your liking – Coca-Cola products and homemade baklava and pound cake. Topping options include chili, slaw (just chopped cabbage), diced onions and yellow mustard. Every hot dog comes with a free Tootsie roll or two.
Poniros, who has manned the restaurant for 25 years, says it’s his grandfather George Charles’ chili recipe. Ernest Charles says his mother Mary created it. Either way, Poniros asserts the chili honors his grandparents’ infamous insistence for absolutely no ketchup in the restaurant. “My grandmother said ‘You ain’t ruining my chili.’”
Last week, Roast Grill celebrated 75 years in business. The Mecca, on nearby West Martin Street, recently celebrated 80 years. They are the two still-operating downtown reminders of the Greek-American restaurant legacy in Raleigh. (Opening in 1930, the Mecca rivals only Dick’s Hot Dogs in Wilson, as the longest-standing family-run restaurant in the state. Dick’s is also Greek-owned.)
In 1913, Nicholas J. Dombalis reportedly caught a boat to America from Turkey, joining other Greeks fleeing oppression from the Ottoman empire. He first worked mining coal in Kentucky, then moved to Virginia to work in food service. Dombalis told a News & Observer reporter in 1978: “I saw a sign that said: ‘Waitress Wanted.’ I didn’t understand much English, so I walked in and asked for the job.”
Similarly, George Tsalikis joined the British Navy to escape Turkish soldiers in 1918. Ernest Charles says his father changed Tsalikis to Charles after Charles Potato Chips. He ran several restaurants in Raleigh during his career, including the Sanitary Café opened in 1925 at 301 W. Martin St. But the consistent rise in rent prices had him bouncing around.
“He never owned the buildings,” Charles recalls. “He’d leave work and come [to Roast Grill] and help my mother.”
Mary Hios and George Charles met in Raleigh. Her father, James Hios, immigrated to Raleigh first in 1918 from Sparta, Greece. Ernest Charles says his grandfather knew limited English and started peddling peanuts downtown, six blocks from where Roast Grill is now.
“James Hios was a little guy with a handlebar moustache. Colorful guy,” says Charles, who himself is clean shaven, over 6 feet tall and speaks with a Southern drawl. “He would get up in the morning and get his horse cart – but he was the horse!” He describes what he knows from stories. His grandfather woke up at dawn to light the coals that would roast the peanuts. Leaning against the brick building where he lived, now housing Roast Grill, he’d smoke a couple of Camel cigarettes and wait for the whistle to blow, signaling the coals were ready.
When Mary married George, they acquired the building. It now belongs to Ernest Charles. He remembers when half of the front porch was converted into the now-tiny luncheonette. On the other side, parallel to the fig tree, his mother’s garden of vegetables and mint thrived off of leftover coffee grounds and sawdust that she mixed into the stubborn clay soil.
Greek migration to Raleigh, according to church records at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, began with the arrival of Constantine (Gus) Vurnakes in 1896. His son would help start Holy Trinity’s parish.
Durham-based historian and former state archivist Larry Odzak researched the Greek immigrant’s role in the South for his book “Demetrios is Now Jimmy.”It is the first comprehensive overview of Greeks in the South, beginning in 1895 as the first wave or migrants escaped then Constantinople essentially as war refugees.
“Up until 1921, you had very few immigration laws that prevented you from coming here,” he tells me. “As long as you were healthy and could prove you had $5 in your pocket, they let you in.”
According to census statistics, about 1 in every 4 Greek males between the age of 15 and 45 departed for America between 1900 and 1915. Most went to work in railroad gangs in the West, in New England mill towns or in factories and, yes, restaurants, in bigger urban areas like New York or Chicago. There, officially established Greek towns (comparable to Chinatowns) still thrive.
One in 15 Greeks who settled in America before 1920 ended up in formerly Confederate states. A 1913 census record reveals 2,000 total Greeks “scattered” in North Carolina.
In 1935, the Works Progress Administration under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt funded the Federal Writers’ Project to document people and culture while employing thousands of writers during the Great Depression. Among the sub-projects was a “Greek Study” to document the oral histories of Greek immigrants.
Among those who told their stories was Pete Geraris, a restaurant owner in Elizabeth City. When asked why so many Greek people who come to America open restaurants, Geraris replied: “As simple as hot cakes. A Greek comes to America; he can speak little English; he doesn’t feel himself above any kind of work. In looking about for a job he finds dishwashers in demand. He gets a job in a hotel or restaurant kitchen washing dishes. He learns to cook. He gets five or six hundred dollars ahead and opens a little restaurant of his own.”
As records and family lore prove, someone in the Greek family eventually takes over the business. Paul Dombalis, Nick’s grandson, now runs the Mecca. His mother, Floye, is the 89-year-old classic beauty who still runs the cash register. (The only non-family member to ever work a shift at the register is Ernest Charles.) The Eastern Carolina girl married into the family when John Dombalis, Nick’s son, was working there through college. She was an accountant downtown and was promised to John’s best friend. Yet her betrothed didn’t have a job, so she broke it off. John asked for a date, and eventually gave her an $11 engagement ring. They married and raised four children in a bicultural home, eating everything from Floye’s stewed collard greens to Helen Dombalis’s (Nick’s wife) Greek meatballs.
Paul took over while his father was still alive, though John managed to show up every day wearing a tie to keep tabs and greet all the regulars – politicians, athletes, bankers and day laborers. Since his passing, his grandson, also John, comes in to help on weekends.
“My first memories of the Mecca are of my grandfather typing the daily specials, in the odd cadence of someone who used two fingers to type,” John says. “I was his ‘right hand man.’ ”
John will eventually leave his bank job to take over for his father. It is a legacy he carries with great pride.
“There is a beautiful, quiet serenity to those memories, and they are precious to me.”
Annual Greek Holiday Café and Bake Sale
Raleigh's Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church is hosting its annual holiday cafe and bake sale Dec. 3 and 4.
Stop at the church from 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Dec. 3 and 4 to buy Greek food and pastries prepared by the members of the Ladies Philoptochos Society.
The church is at 5000 Leadmine Road, Raleigh. Info: www.holytrinityraleigh.org
Ten percent of proceeds will be donated to Transitions LifeCare, a Wake County hospice organization.