By Katherine Hon | PastMatters
In 1985, John Kotselas decided to open a restaurant featuring his family’s delicious recipes. He says, “Greeks stay put,” and true to his heritage, he has maintained his restaurant, Olympic Café, in the little shopping center on the northwest corner of Texas Street and University Avenue for 31 years.
Kotselas will soon be leaving that space, but he will not be moving far. He is guiding the creation of an authentic Greek taverna in the building just to the west at 2310 University Ave., which most recently hosted Jersey Joe’s Pizzeria.
Although he was born in Greece, Kotselas is essentially a North Park native. He came here with his family in 1967 when he was only 8 years old. His father, Pete, and mother, Evlabia, emigrated to the United States when a group of right-wing colonels seized power in Greece, suppressed civil liberties and dissolved political parties. He says his parents were children during World War II and the Greek civil war that followed in the late 1940s. They did not want to suffer through more violence and upheaval. The family, including John and his two older sisters Niki and Noula, settled on Bancroft Street just north of Thorn Street.
John expounds fondly about growing up in North Park. He attended McKinley Elementary School and Hoover High School when both were still in their beautiful original buildings constructed during the 1920s. He skated at the Palisade Gardens roller skating rink on University Avenue at Utah Street and watched movies at the North Park Theatre. He delivered newspapers when he was 11 years old, riding his bike at 5 in the morning along Texas and Louisiana streets from El Cajon Boulevard south. He played baseball at Morley Field in the 1970s, and is still proud of his home run for his team, the Optimists, in the 1971 Little League game where they won the championship. He played basketball for Hoover High School under his beloved coach, Hal Mitrovich, earning MVP his first year.
Few may know that he has a master’s degree in theology and taught philosophy, theology and New Testament Greek at Horizon Bible Institute in San Diego for six years. In the early 1980s, when interest rates were skyrocketing and the used-car business was flourishing, he imported cars and sold them at a lot on 16th and C streets Downtown. But he began to feel the car business was too dependent on transitory economic conditions and decided the restaurant business would be more stable.
“Your stomach doesn’t ask what the interest rate is when you want to eat,” he explains. His sisters, for years, had been successfully running eight restaurants, including Troy’s Greek Restaurant on Friars Road. So in 1985, he brought recipes from his mom and sisters to the corner spot at Texas Street and University Avenue, a location he had ridden by many times on his paper route.
John loves providing an experience where people can forget whatever else is going on, relax, and enjoy eating Greek food made from scratch. His favorite memories include hanging out at the restaurant with local coaches like Hal Mitrovich; Bill Whittaker, a founder of North Park Little League and former baseball coach at Saint Augustine; and Joe Schloss, another founder of North Park Little League and respected coach for 60 years.
He says the restaurant is an extension of his house, and indeed, many customers feel like friends coming over for a visit. When he was writing his book “Socrates in New York” in the late 1990s, he would test out philosophical theories at the restaurant. He laughs, remembering getting phone calls after midnight from worried families asking if he had seen the person they sent to pick up their take-out hours ago. Yes, they were still engaged in the lively discussion, sacks of food forgotten on the table in front of them.
His fondest memory about the restaurant is meeting Donna, his wife of 25 years, there in 1989. She had recently moved to Hamilton Street and was going to a nearby dry cleaners when he first saw her. After she left, he asked them to tell her to come to the restaurant next time, and a few months later she did. Her degree in food science from UC Davis and cooking skills were the icing on the cake. Appropriately, she makes all the tempting desserts at Olympic Café.
John is looking forward to the new location being open before Christmas. There will be a covered outdoor patio and more indoor space where diners can linger. The hand-scraped floor tile that looks like stone, hand-distressed window frames and hand-forged wrought iron finishes will form an authentic backdrop for the antiques he has collected over the years. He and his long-time employees are very happy to be staying in North Park, a community they love, and the neighborhood can’t wait to join them for a leisurely breakfast, lunch or dinner.
—Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-294-8990.