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Originally published Friday, June 28, 2013 at 4:08 PM

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Guest: Remembering U District’s Conti as owners retire after 40 years

At their best, family restaurants transcend their business and become community institutions, writes guest columnist Taso Lagos.

Special to The Times

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ON Sunday, the Continental Greek Restaurant on the U District’s Ave will close its doors and make way for new owners. After nearly 40 years running the Conti, as it’s affectionately known, my family will retire from the restaurant business.

At 75 and 82, my mother and father simply ran out of energy and want to enjoy their grandkids and great-grandkids.

I grew up in the eatery, as did many of our best customers. I worked there as a dishwasher and cook while attending the University of Washington as an undergraduate, and then helped manage the place when I returned to the UW to get my advanced degrees some years later.

Countless parents brought their own babies to the Conti and my family watched them grow up, some of them eventually even working at the restaurant as servers, cooks or dishwashers.

It didn’t have the fanciest décor or even the most exotic dishes, but that sense of family is what attracted so many to the place,

A lot of love and tender care went into its operation, which may be why many consider it a local institution.

My mother arrived every morning at 3:15 a.m. to open the restaurant, through storms, traffic closures and even blizzards. The only days she didn’t come were Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. She was punched by a street kid but she never stopped serving.

She mopped and cleaned the place, and also prepped the kitchen. Before working at the restaurant, she could not read or write English, but my mother exemplified the spirit of what makes this country and this city so great: hard work, service, optimism, friendships.

My father did all the prep cooking in the back, seven days a week, often alone. He fed hundreds of thousands over 40 years. He made hummus and lentil soup — which many tried to replicate but never succeeded — baklava, stuffed grape leaves, avgolemono and his own Greek sausage.

My brother managed the place and became as beloved as my parents.

My parents came from a tiny, conservative village in Greece. In the U District, they were confronted with gay couples and straight divorcees. One man, Fred, a regular customer, died of AIDS. My mother wept. She became a borrowed mom to punk-rock bands who became regulars and started calling her “Mom.”

My parents grew tolerant and accepting of their new circumstances. At the end of the day we are all made of the same dust, share the same hopes and pain.

It’s sad to see such a community institution pass away, but new ones always emerge. It will be remembered, not just for the food it served, but the conversations and friendships it sparked.

The Conti may yet be resurrected in the future. I hope it lives forever. At their best, these family restaurants transcend their business and become community institutions.

In a world where we text instead of talk, the Conti brought people together, face to face. It sustained real, human life.

A rabbi once said that God is the space that takes place between two people talking. If so, then God was at the Conti.

Now it’s time for other places to do the same.

Taso Lagos is program director for the University of Washington Greece Study Abroad Program.

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