by Billy Ingram
In 1934 Nicholas Kontoulas and his two brothers established California Sandwich Shop on the northeastern corner of South Elm and Edward’s Place (now McGee Street), where Natty Greene’s is today. At the same time James Kappas opened Jim’s Lunch directly across the street. Soon a rivalry broke out between the two joints over who sold the tastiest hot dogs. So it’s kind of ironic they were the inspiration for this intersection’s nickname: Hamburger Square.
Fifteen years later, bewildered and alone, teenager Minas Dascalakis landed on these shores from central Greece, a nation ravaged by back-to-back wars with the Italians and Germans, followed closely by a brutal civil war. Dascalakis spoke to the Greensboro Daily News about arriving in Greensboro in 1949: “I got a job washing dishes in my brother-in-law’s café. I worked five years for him. He ran a restaurant on South Elm Street, the Princess Café. Why a restaurant? That’s the only thing I knew then. Where else can a Greek get a job? Where you have a helping hand. When the first immigrants came over, they got into the business and it kept perpetuating.”
Boy, did it — by the 1950s there were some 76 eateries in downtown Greensboro alone, almost every single one owned by members of the city’s Greek community, staffed by a phalanx of waiters and cooks mainly from the Evrytania region of Greece.
Greensboro was bursting at the seams in the Nifty Fifties, a ripple effect from hosting the Overseas Replacement Depot (ORD), an enormous Army Air Force base that processed tens of thousands of troops to fight the Nazis in Europe. Then, once the war was won, it reintegrated them into civilian life. A good number of soldiers had no reason to leave the area; as a result, downtown was home to more than a dozen hotels and rooming houses, both large and small.
Thousands of businessmen in loose suits and fedoras shared the sidewalks with scores of ladies in pleated skirts descending on the many jewelry, clothing and department stores, an attractive setting for coffee shops and luncheonettes.
After years scrimping and saving, Minas Dascalakis purchased a short-order diner at 223 N. Elm St. from Matthew Pappas in 1953. The very next day it was Minas behind the counter taking orders at Matthew’s Grill (“The Right Place to Eat”); he and his wife Sortiria plated sausage, eggs, and steaks there for the next 34 years.
The Sunday Special at Matthew’s was braised rabbit with two vegetables, a homemade dessert and coffee for $1.50. Every day country-style steak came with a couple of sides, a slice of pie and a cup of java for 95 cents. The produce couldn’t have been fresher: Local farmers pulled their pickup trucks right up to the back door in the mornings so Minas could select the very best for that day’s offerings. Business was good. Before long he bought the fabled California Sandwich Shop, keeping the original owner and his son James Kontoulos on to run things.
The 300 block of South Elm was one of the most lively of the city,” Dascalakis, the veteran restaurateur, said recently. “In that area there were several small hotels, no more than 10 rooms, 12 rooms.”
Within a two block radius there was the MacArthur Hotel, the Carolina, and the Princess Hotel above California Sandwich. There were rooms for rent above Sam & Mack’s Newsstand and other nearby storefronts. It was a gilded age for the district, and Hamburger Square was a its prime dining destination, with fare for all tastes.
“The Princess Café in those days was the elite place to eat,” Dascalakis said. “The food was good, the location was right.”
The cuisine where Minas got his start washing dishes years earlier was traditional, with thick gravy and sauces, known then as “plantation style.” Both Matthew’s Grill and the Princess butchered their own meats on the premises; pork fat sizzled in the fryers.
The streets may have been frenzied with shoppers but when people stopped by places like Matthew’s Grill it was a relaxed atmosphere. Patrons were free to use the restaurants’ rear doors rather than hoofing it around to the front.
Dascalakis benefitted from being just two short blocks from Greensboro’s premier hotel, the King Cotton. That venture had an inauspicious debut in 1926, he said.
“Where the Guilford Building is now [301 S. Elm St.], the backside was stables for the horses and buggies, that’s where everybody parked,” he said. “They decided to build a hotel there because the O’Henry Hotel was getting a little age. So they built the building you see now for a hotel, a beautiful hotel from what they say… it didn’t last but two weeks.”
On a hill towering above the train depot vibrations, the cacophony brought on by wheels on steel made sleeping impossible.
“Those days the railroad was so active, maybe they have almost 100 trains every day,” he said. “They loaded the cotton in New Orleans, by the time they reached Greensboro, it’s sometimes 2 or 3 in the morning. That’s why they went bankrupt [in two weeks]. Then they went two blocks down and built the King Cotton hotel on Davie.”
Ikea wasn’t the first to mix food and retail — 5 and 10-cent stores all had busy lunch counters in the 1950s. Drug emporiums did as well. At Woolworths, the most expensive item on the menu was a toasted, triple-decker chicken-salad sandwich for 65 cents; a De Luxe Tulip Sundae would set you back a quarter. You could browse the aisles at Belks in Jefferson Square (the corner of Elm and Market) then slide into a booth in the Mayfair Cafeteria located in the back.
Well… you could if you were white. The Mayfair was the site of mass protests in 1963. They stubbornly refused to integrate after Kress, Woolworths and other department stores gave in to reason a few years earlier. The cafeteria closed soon after.
With dozens of overlapping choices, all within walking distance, one can only imagine the competitive nature of the food business downtown, the pressure to keep prices low. There were also less conventional vendors to contend with operating across from the King Cotton, in storefronts only 10 or 12 feet wide.
“You had all those tiny, door-to-door situations.” Dascalakis recalled, ”There was a restaurant in every door. One would have a stool, one would have no stool, the other one [would] have three stools. One guy had chitlins, one guy pig’s feet. They specialized. That’s how they made a living. They go home and cook 20 pigs’ feet, they come in to sell them, they go back home and cook again, then come back. There was nobody, [no health department].
“On the other side, before you get down to Davie Street, there were a little bit bigger stores,” he continued. “You could sit down and have some barbeque, another had beef stew, or hot dogs, or chicken, whatever they could put together.
“You go down East Market Street there is a bridge, you know what they used to call it? The Bullpen. You’re supposed to be like a bull to go through, that’s how rough it was. Always had two police officers. One very big guy was Lt. Mitchum — he could pick up a 200-pound man, lift him up and throw him on the ground. There were no questions, no questions. There was another officer, a black man about 350 in weight, on the other side of the Bullpen.”
Other than the pool halls on South Elm there wasn’t much in the way of nightlife—unless you count Mary’s Hotel and Restaurant where they didn’t just take your reservations, they took your bets in the basement while call girls roamed the halls upstairs.
Alas, every boom has its bust. The Gate City’s contraction kicked into high gear in 1973 after the controlled demolition of the King Cotton who’s 13 floors were, in an instant, reduced to a pile of rubble to make way for the News & Record’s current digs. Mary’s was flattened for a parking lot.
Over at Elm and Bellemeade the O’Henry Hotel’s 300 rooms and stunning art-deco lobby had fallen into disrepair and ill repute. At one time the cosmopolitan symbol of a small Southern town’s determination to be taken seriously, this crumbling structure’s few tenants in the ’70s consisted mostly of vagrants and soon-to-be divorcées, a beacon of squalor in the heart of town. The plan to put the O’Henry out of its misery was first hatched around the block… at Matthew’s Grill.
Dascalakis explains: “A friend of mine was assistant manager to the city. He comes into the restaurant one night and he says, ‘We got $300,000, community development money, and we don’t know what to do with it.’ I was talking to the officials just like I was with them. I said, ‘Mike, why don’t we do something here with that rathole [the O’Henry] up here?’ He went back to Mr. Metzger, the director of public works, he talked to him and he called General Townsend — he was the past city manager, they named the lake in his honor. He talked to him. The next morning he come in, I didn’t even unlock the door yet, ‘You know, you might have something there.’
“Okay. The city bought the hotel, city destroyed the hotel. Southern Life Insurance Company came in with the cooperation of the city, you know how that works, politics, they bought the property where the hotel was.
“I was on a committee at that time, we wanted to put three floors below Elm Street for a parking deck, one floor on Elm Street for retail, a mall type of space,” he said. “[The new city manager] was very much against it. He didn’t last, I tell you that. He took his shoes and left. If he allowed that almost 200,000 square feet to become retail on that corner, and have two floors on top of them for offices, and three decks below for parking, downtown Greensboro would look different from today.”