Volume 74, Number 26 | October 27 - November 03 , 2004

More than a waiter, Louie gave Joe Jr. its flavor

By Ed Gold

Louie looked at me sternly as I sat in the booth. I hadn’t spoken, but he did: “B.L.T. down. Whole wheat. Mayo. A decaf.” Then turning to my friend, Ron, a frequent booth-sharer: “Small Greek. No cucumbers. No peppers. Extra grape leaves. Diet Pepsi.”

Elias Vassilakis, 55, known to most as Louie, the colorful, roly-poly waiter at the Joe Jr. Greek diner, checked out two weeks ago to the shock and dismay of an army of friends he had made during a 25-year run at 12th St. and Sixth Ave.

The flowers piled high in front of the coffee shop a few days after his passing, testifying to the affection felt by scores of patrons-turned-friends over the years.

“He treated regular customers like they were part of his extended family,” according to Gregory Hondros, whose father owns Joe Jr. “They felt a family loss, so that’s how they responded, with flowers and many, many cards.”

One of Louie’s patron-friends, Carl Oreggia, describes him as a “real character.” Family and friends listed these qualities: He was independent, fun loving, fatalistic, mischievous, a risk-taker — he smoked and gambled — a straight talker when serious, a strong family man and a dreamer.

On occasion, he treated me with affectionate disdain, sometimes with tongue-in-cheek.

One afternoon I was stood up for lunch. As I began to leave, Louie advised me: “Next time don’t make a date with someone who’s unreliable.”

On another occasion I arrived with a friend who had never experienced Louie. A booth opened up front and my friend began sitting down. Louie bellowed: “Hey, that’s a four-person booth. Take one of the two-seaters in the back.” Actually, the booths are all the same.

The place is jammed at lunchtime, and once when Ron and I were waiting for a booth Louie came over and asked if we had a reservation. Sometimes, after we were seated, he’d walk by as if we weren’t there.

But he was basically friendly when he wasn’t fooling around, especially when he talked about family and the future. Two of his sons, Greg and Timmy, were launched on careers, so he was only concerned about his youngest son, Peter, a senior at Buffalo University where he is majoring in business. “As soon as he graduates,” Louie would say often, “I’m outta here. I’m gonna buy a small Greek island and lie on the beach and maybe drink a little wine.”

Then he would add: “You guys can come over and lie on the beach, too.”

Gregory, one of many of Louie’s cousins who work at Joe Jr., recalls a special quality: “He never used an order book. He took thousands of orders. I tried it and I couldn’t do it. I don’t remember him ever making a mistake.”

Teddy Hondros, the owner, rarely shows emotion, but his voice cracked a bit when he talked about Louie’s “more than 30 years with me; he was my right-hand man.”

In family affairs, Louie was often the life of the party. And the family had some big fat Greek parties.

“The biggest event is on New Year’s Eve,” Gregory notes. “Often it was in Louie’s apartment. He did most of the preparation. About 35 family members would squeeze into the place. You couldn’t move very easily. But we had plenty of food and wine and we managed to do a lot of dancing, and Louie set the tempo.”

Everyone recalls that Louie liked to gamble. Raoul, the veteran chef, knew him well for 25 years and used to bet on baseball games with him. Effie Kontis, a cousin, remembers that they “went to Belmont a few times and he also occasionally liked to go to Atlantic City, and he always had a good time.”

Gregory notes that he was “sharp at cards but not too good with the horses,” adding that “he just did it for fun, not to make money, and he was always cool under pressure.”

On a serious note, Gregory Hondros recalls that Louie had had a checkup some weeks ago and the doctors had found a clogged artery. He had been told to come back in a month. And his friend Carl, the counter regular, says, “He was a great eater and loved food, lots of calories, and I urged him to change his eating habits.”

But Louie maintained his independent ways to the end. He would say, “What will be will be.”

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