Joe and Nick

Ask Vance

(page 2 of 2)


photographs courtesy of Bonnie and Nick Kourvelas

New York, New York

Dear Vance: My husband’s great uncle once operated a restaurant somewhere in South Memphis called the New York Café. What can you tell me about this place? — B.K., Memphis

Dear B.K.: I might as well tell my half-dozen readers that B.K. is actually Bonnie Kourvelas, a noted local historian, and she occasionally sends interesting questions so that I can expound in my longwinded, paid-by-the-word way, about a variety of topics.

And this query gives me the chance to point out the importance to Memphis of the Greek community, because without them, our city would be restaurant poor. Think about this for a minute. Some of our landmark eateries in town have been owned by Greeks: The Rendezvous, Jim’s Place East, The Arcade, Melos Taverna. I’ve written before about the curious “Old Master Says” Restaurant on Poplar, the one adorned with a 14-foot plaster head of the owner, a Greek with a non-Greek name, John George Morris.

And then there are the dozens — if not hundreds — of little Greek-owned cafes scattered in just about every neighborhood of our city. And the New York Café was just one of them. But if my pal Bonnie thought she was tossing me a softball question, one that would allow me to say that her great-uncle’s café opened at a certain date and closed at another, equally certain date, in a sentence or two, she was wrong.

Because there were at least three different New York Cafes here. I won’t take up your time with a convoluted history of all of these establishments, so here’s the gist of it. The first New York Café in town — or at least the first with that name listed in old city directories — opened in 1915 at 333 Beale Street. It was owned by Leon Bryonis, and later taken over by the Touliatos family.

Sometime in the early 1920s, yet another New York Café opened at 546 South Main, owned by two brothers, Nick and John Trifonopoulos. You’ll note that all of these fellows are members of the Greek restaurant community, but none of them was Bonnie’s great uncle.

His name was Nicholas Demopoulos, and he entered the picture in 1920, when he joined his uncle John Zarifes, who had opened yet another New York Café at 219 East McLemore, close to South Third Street.

In fact, that’s Nick and his wife, Demetra, in the fine picture here, showing them standing at the counter of their café. I wish I had a menu, showing all the tasty eats available, but obviously one thing you could purchase was an ice-cold bottle of Goldcrest 51 beer.

Their New York Café remained in business on East McLemore until 1955, but there’s some confusion about the address. Over the years, the phone books show it as 211, 217, and even 219 East McLemore. According to Bonnie, her family insists that at some point, the café moved across the street. But Memphis streets have even-numbered addresses on one side, and odds on the other. All the addresses for the New York Café are odd-numbered, meaning that if the café did move, it stayed on the same side of the street. I don’t know what to make of that.

Around 1955, Nick Demopoulos left McLemore, turning that restaurant over to another Greek relative, Michael Talarico. He got involved in various downtown ventures, including the American Legion Café, the City Coffee Shop, and finally, Nick’s Café, located in the row of buildings torn down to make way for the new Radisson Hotel, next door to the old Tennessee Hotel. His son, Chris, took over the business, until it closed in the late 1980s or early 1990s. The original buildings on McLemore were demolished for the widening of South Third.

And that leaves us with one final mystery. Bonnie’s family says that before he got involved with the restaurant on McLemore, Nick had opened an earlier New York Café on North Main, somewhere around Adams. Well, the city directories don’t list it, so that provides me with a topic for another day.


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