A Tale of Two Diners
Father, son bridge the generation gap in the restaurant business
(page 1 of 5)
Angelo Kaltsounis, thirty-nine, is trying to explain the worst night of his life. Seventeen years earlier, he had to tell his father he was going to New York and leaving Charlotte and the family business, the Landmark diner.
He’s hunched over a small table in Big View Diner, the Ballantyne restaurant where he’s chef and part owner.
Big View is light years from the classic Greek diner. Giant red, triangular stanchions support the building on all sides, suggesting a hexagonal space station. Above the entrance, a tower not unlike one of the Gates of Babylon stands three stories tall. The future meets the ancient past—it’s a fitting metaphor for Angelo’s mission at Big View: reinventing the traditional diner with skills honed at some of New York, Atlanta, and Montreal’s finest restaurants.
Inside, a glitzy vista with seating for almost 300 includes a sports bar, dining room, party room, and, de rigueur at every diner, a long, serpentine counter. Taking a break from the kitchen, the intense Angelo Kaltsounis—neatly parted jet-black hair, freshly scrubbed face, a beauty mark, still looking like every mother’s son, even with a designer dress shirt open a few rakish buttons at the neck—takes pains to describe the night he declined his birthright.
By February 1994 he’d known for months that he’d been accepted at the Culinary Institute of America. But he dreaded telling his father and his uncles that he was leaving. He’d left it until the very last minute: a Wednesday morning, 3 a.m., at the end of his shift as he was saying goodnight. He was due up at school in two days.
“I have a vision,” he told his father, Athanasius “Tommy” Kaltsounis, then forty-six. “I want to struggle like you did. I want to do something you’ll be proud of.”
Tommy didn’t understand. Struggle? This is exactly why he had been standing on his feet since 1971—first in New York, washing dishes, busing tables, serving, cooking, working double shifts, saving money, never taking a day off in thirty years; then buying a diner in Charlotte, holding onto it for a couple years, flipping it, continually trading up until finally he had the money and the credit to build his own place, Landmark Diner—so Angelo, his son, would never have to struggle!
Angelo explained that he was paying for tuition himself; he wanted no help from his father. This still did not compute for Tommy.
Angelo lowers his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “You see, everything with the Greeks is destiny.”
“I was my father’s ‘out,’ ” he says, smiling sardonically. “See, these guys work their whole lives, always with the dream of one day ‘getting out’ … being relieved, able to step down and work two days a week instead of six or seven. I was my father’s ‘out.’ ” That was Angelo’s destiny.
He pauses. “And I never said ‘no’ to my father.”
Many times he could have. When other kids were playing Nintendo, nine-year-old Angelo was flipping eggs at Big Village, Tommy’s first lunch-and-breakfast place in Charlotte. By the time he was twelve, Angelo was pulling his own shift at Tommy’s next location, a burger joint.
Tommy’s no slave driver. Tanned and sandy haired at sixty-three, an amiable smile never leaves his face. He doesn’t look like he’s done anything in his life worse than spoil his grandchildren.
But back in the day, “he made my ass work!” laughs Angelo.
Like many Greek sons, Angelo, even at fourteen, was on the fast track to marrying early and marrying Greek. To make sure nothing would cause Angelo to be diverted from the eventual meeting of these goals, he was conscripted into service at his uncle’s fish camp in Pineville, mopping and busing tables every day after school.
“There was no going to high school games, no soccer games, no hanging out on weekends,” he says, narrowing his eyes. “From the time I was very young they had my life all planned out for me.”
Angelo learned to keep his own counsel. Mopping and busing tables is a lonely business, with lots of time to think. From the bottom, Angelo looked up the food chain, studying the workplace hierarchy. Whatever he was going to do with his life, he wanted to lead. “I studied the great men … Napoleon … Alexander,” he says.
All these leaders, including his father, had one thing in common: a period, before their success, of intense struggle. So if struggle is part of the formula for success, then that’s what he would do.
Angelo may have had a hard time selling this formula to his father and uncles standing outside the family restaurant that February night. One thing, however, they understood: tonight was his last night at Landmark.
Larry, his youngest uncle at thirty-four, only eleven years his senior, the uncle he was closest to, began, “I wish you all the luck in the worl—” and couldn’t finish.
“I realized at that moment what I meant to them,” Angelo remembers.
“My father never showed emotion,” says Angelo. But outside his dark restaurant, Tommy couldn’t look his first born in the face. “He didn’t want to break down.”
Angelo did not intend to come back to Charlotte. “But my father didn’t know that.”
Fathers know. Before Angelo’s Honda pulled into traffic, Tommy had one last thought. “I didn’t think I’d see my son again.”