Has this ever happened to you? You’re snug in a restaurant booth, checking out the menu. It hints of being a solidly all-American place, peopled by musclebound construction workers in hardhats hankering for steak, eggs, and crackling conversation.
Then it happens. Every couple of items, you begin spotting obvious signs that reveal it must be Greek-owned. Bread pudding. Rice pudding. Greek salad. Avgolemono soup. Spanakopita. Although the sign outside says it’s simply a `family restaurant,’ in all-embracing majesty, your instincts, honed from your Hellenic roots buried deep in your DNA, tells the story.
Such was the case on my recent visit to Tool’s restaurant in this idyllic hamlet west of Albany. From the outside, the place messages modest curb appeal. The squat, freestanding structure, decked out in light-brown siding and flagstone, is functional. The best stuff, I quickly found out as I strolled through the tiny foyer past a community bulletin board festooned with events, is inside.
The interior is fashioned of warm hardwood floors and brown leather booths. Missing are clues into the owners being Greek. There are no obligatory murals depicting the Acropolis. No white-washed church dome depicting Crete or Corfu. Definitely no village donkeys climbing craggy hillsides guided by their beloved owner named Stavros.
When my sister-in-law, Anna, took us into Tool’s, I didn’t expect the food or the company to tantalize. But then all that went out the window when Lisa Chajon, the engagingly effervescent owner, rolled over from behind the cash register to greet us. She assumed a ramrod-straight posture, hovering over our table like a protective mother hen eyeing her brood.
“We’re very homey,” she said, as if we were regulars who had come from the same village. “We get to know our customers. I go from table to table. We talk about everything – politics or we don’t talk about politics.”
Wait, what? I spoke too soon. It turned out her dad’s family hailed from a village outside Kalamata. My wife, Mary, and Anna’s mom hailed from around there, too. “I bet we’re related!” Anna and Lisa blurted out in unison. Affirmed Anna: “It has the charm of an old-fashioned tearoom with the casual friendliness of a diner. It could be the 1950’s in there and you’d never know it.”
Chajon, 58, who attended high school in Athens, in Plaka, was just getting warmed up.
“We get a lot of older people here. Young people don’t know what meatloaf is.” As for the Greek entries on the menu, she said that Greek fare stands out. “It has good flavor to it. English and German food are kinda bland.” People will say `geez, that’s a Greek restaurant. They know how to cook.”
That was nearby customer Armand Landry’s cue for joining the fun. He strolled over. Make that full-on raced over, expending all the raw energy needed by a toddler tearing across the playground to greet his mom.
Sporting the tall, distinguished demeanor of a wise, fatherly politician (think Jimmy Stewart) Landry, 72, actually runs his own home improvement business. Although he lives 45 minutes away in Durham, NY, he’s finds himself driving north on the Thruway a lot, remodeling bathrooms and adding decks for customers in the Capital District. In between, he holds court at the restaurant, tantalizingly adding his hue to the grassroots tapestry.
“It’s like ‘Cheers’, he said, referring to the old NBC sitcom. Then he ticks off a short list of names of many people he breaks bread with: “Agatha’s a sweetheart … Ron … Dave … James. Steve likes to yell `Greeaaaat!’ He’s really loud; he makes sure everyone hears him. Landry makes sure to give a shout-out to Chajon’s sister, Katie Tsokanis, who bakes all the pies and pastries from scratch. “There’s a lot of mature customers here. They don’t tolerate processed food.”
On that note, Landry hoisted a weathered briefcase. He then gently pulled out a thick stack of original poetry and prose. An impromptu fiction reading was about to begin.
Talk about dishing up the personal treatment! Chajon’s daily rat-a-tat-tat patter with customers goes something like this: “I’ll say, `I happened to make lasagna.’” She makes the comment to spread the good word around, to townspeople and visitors alike. “Come in tomorrow.”
And come they will. It’s nearly next to impossible to blow off this insider trading-style tip she so quietly spills. From my decidedly unwashed perspective, her approach is nothing less than pure marketing genius, the kind they don’t teach at HarvardBusiness School.
“They’re comfortable with me,” she said, that Greek spirit oozing forth, illuminating the humble dining room, assuredly casting the bright light down Delaware Avenue to the top floors of the skyscrapers that make up Empire State Plaza. “They’re happy.”