Pete Contos, owner of the Pete’s Restaurants empire, dies at 85

“He would make you laugh, he would make you cry, he would piss you off. But if you wanted to go to war in the restaurant business, there is nobody else that you would go to war with.”
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A portrait of Pete Contos on the side of this Satire Lounge on Colfax, May 13, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

About one week ago, Pete Contos repeated a familiar Greek saying to his son, Dean:

"Ta matia sou tesera."

"That means have four eyes," Dean Contos said. "The two in the front and the two in the back. And he always said that with business, with life and with family. Look around. Look what you have. Look what we have. Keep an eye on everything. Keep an eye on everyone else."

On Sunday, Pete, owner of six Denver restaurants including Pete's Kitchen and Satire Lounge, died at the age of 85. His words were a sickbed reminder from father to son, businessman to businessman -- advice both practical and emotional.

Contos built a restaurant empire in Denver starting with Satire Lounge in 1962. He later opened the now iconic diner Pete's Kitchen next door, on the corner of Colfax Avenue and Race Street. He also owned Pete's Gyros Place in City Park, Pete's University Park Café at the edge of the University of Denver campus, Pete's Greek Town Café in Congress Park and Pete's Central One in Washington Park West.

What became one of the most beloved restaurant groups in Denver started with a spark at a bar in the 1950s.

Contos came to Denver from Greece in 1955, sponsored by his uncle, who owned a bar downtown. He worked there as a dishwasher. He was living with his uncle's family when his uncle died -- a year to the day of his arrival in Denver -- setting him out on his own.

"At the funeral, his aunt, who was not Greek ... she handed him his uncle's overcoat and said, 'You gotta go,'" Dean said. "Basically put him out on the street. So he had no job, no family, nothing."

He moved into a hotel with some other Greek immigrants -- four or five of them living in a room for which they each paid $5 a week while making $10 a week, Contos said.

He was working as a busboy downtown when he felt the spark.

"He was watching the bartenders one day and he told his friends, that's what I'm gonna do," Contos said.

Pete worked his way up from busboy to bar-back to bartender before he bought his own place -- and in the meantime met Elizabeth, the woman who would be his wife and the mother of his children, on a blind date.

A portrait of Pete Contos and Jonny Barber on Colfax hangs inside Pete's Kitchen, May 13, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

In 1962, he bought the Satire Lounge with a partner who he later bought out.

"It was a tough, rough place, at least when they opened it," Dean said. "They fought their way out the door every night."

Still, Dean grew up at the Satire and remembers it fondly. It "went crazy" in the late '60s and through the '70s, he said, with 25-cent tacos and beers and lines out the door.

The other thing he remembers from that era was the work Greek immigrants like his father put into their community and into becoming Americans, and how his father thought of Denver as his true home.

They went back to his small village in Greece once and while they were sitting out enjoying a sunset, Pete turned to Dean, looked him in the eyes and said, "I want to go home."

"I said you are," Dean remembers.

"He said, 'No, I'm not.'"

A portrait of a young Pete Contos hangs inside Pete's Kitchen on Colfax, May 13, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Pete eventually bought the kitchen next door to the Satire, renaming it Pete's Kitchen and creating one of the most beloved diners in Denver. He also brought gyros to Denver in 1975, when he opened the Gyros Place.

In addition to his six standing restaurants, he also once owned The Bank Bar & Grill, Olympic Flame and Pete's Ice Cream & Coffee. The journey is commemorated on a plaque Contos received when he was inducted into the Foodservice Hall of Fame in 2006.

The plaque also said:

"A dedicated family man with a quick wit, Pete keeps his door open and his cell phone on to anyone in need and has no plans to retire anytime soon saying 'I'm having too much fun. I wish everyone would love their job as much as I do.'"

Contos was a member of the Colorado Restaurant Association for more than 45 years and also a member of Colfax Avenue Business Improvement District.

He worked as long as he could and built himself a legacy as a boss who was on your side, who would have your back. It's getting harder and harder to find loyal employees who "work for the house," Dean said, but for a long time, that's what Pete's restaurants were like.

"If you worked hard for him, he worked harder for you," Dean said.

"I believe that, especially in the earlier years, [what stood out was] what an inspiration he was to people, how much people absolutely love him and wanted to work for him," Dean said. "He would make you laugh, he would make you cry, he would piss you off. But if you wanted to go to war in the restaurant business, there is nobody else that you would go to war with."

A portrait of Pete Contos, printed on a Colfax Avenue banner, hangs inside Pete's Kitchen, May 13, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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