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A Tale of Two Diners

Father, son bridge the generation gap in the restaurant business



Chris Edwards

(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.”

 

 

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We invite your responses and discussion. Please refrain from personal attacks, profanity, commercial promotion, or non sequiturs.

Reader Comments:
Sep 28, 2011 11:37 pm
 Posted by  Sweet dream

Wow. What an erogant article to write about oneself. I guess now a days you get what you pay for.this article just made me want too go and try out the Landmark Diner in which I did. What a great decision on my part. The food was awesome, fresh, and lots of it. The fresh baked desserts were divine. I have been a customer at Big View for a while now, but the two places really do not compare except that they are both family run. Big View is big and sort of a cold ambiance. Waitstaff seem to be in training all the time. The food is pricey and not enough to fill a big mans appetite. I always have a meteocre experience when we eat there. Now, when I go to Landmark, things are different, the family who runs the diner is always there to greet you. The waitstaff is on the ball from refilling drink, taking orders, and staying on top of their game, th food there is always home cooked by the chef who has been there for 20 years. One of the owners graduated cum laude from Johnson and Wales University herein charlotte, NC. He is in the works on revamping the food menues, along with dessert menu, and A new drink menu for mixed drinks., beer, and wine,

Sep 29, 2011 09:04 am
 Posted by  Better than "SWEET DREAM"

Hello, Sweet Dream...You can't spell, first of all. This article is not only HUMBLE and inspiring, but a true testament to living the American Dream. I have no relation to the subjects, but I work with and have known these fine men for years. They run incredibly amazing establishments and have built incredible reputations for themselves in this city. They are warm, friendly, and generous. Sounds like you may either be jealous OR just being a bad player by trying to tear someone down for your benefit. Take a look in the mirror and realize YOU will never have an article about YOU in your lifetime.

Sep 29, 2011 02:50 pm
 Posted by  Sweet dream

Hello to you too, and I am not so sure as to why you are so annoyed with my response to the article. I did not mean to offend anyone. Living the American Dream is sought by many people. I too have prospered in my life and you could never know my accomplishments or how many articles have written about me, but that should not matter at all. My response was in no way personal, and if you took it that way, then maybe you should look in the mirror.

May 8, 2012 08:51 pm
 Posted by  hairgoddess

Hmmm I think we got some dates wrong.

Add your comment:

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