After 23 years, Spartacus closes its doors June 26. To commemorate one of Durham’s longest established restaurants, we reflect on a Thanksgiving story we wrote four years ago that demonstrates how the restaurant was a hub for family, tradition and healthy portions. The owners’ love for authentic flavor – and their families – is evident in the food they serve and share with the community.
The owners said the following on Facebook: “We are truly grateful to have had the opportunity to get to know our beloved and loyal customers and share our love of food. We have raised our families alongside yours and will forever cherish the memories we have made together. Thank you, Durham and surrounding areas – may you always ‘Taste the Celebration!'”
Sweet potato casserole and Greek-spiced rack of lamb go surprisingly well together.
The pairing is a little culinary microcosm of the whole ethos of the Kalfas and Pashales families, who for generations have run restaurants in the South with Mediterranean flair.
But, after we’d polished off their version of Thanksgiving dinner and sat back to enjoy a mini a capella concert from Ralitsa Kalfas, it struck me that soul food and Greek food aren’t that much of a juxtaposition.
Put simply, both cultures embrace family, tradition and generous portions.
Several generations gathered at the home of Nondas and Nahale Kalfas for the meal, admittedly staged for our purposes.
Nahale said it was a nice trial run for their real Thanksgiving, which can draw upwards of 50 people, including more family, friends and “restaurant orphans” who can’t make it to their home for the holiday.
About a dozen family members and two journalistic interlopers made this a more manageable affair, and wine and conversation flowed freely. Our presence even brought an added measure of domestic tranquility to the proceedings, we were told. “We don’t work together well in the same kitchen,” Nondas says with a smiling nod toward his wife of 16 years. “I usually go to the restaurant to cook the meat.”
Nondas is the linchpin between the restaurant-running Kalfas and Pashales clans. Stay with us here.
George Pashales represents his side. He told me over the kitchen bar that his father, James, came to the States from Cyprus in 1908 to work at a steel mill in Pittsburgh, then went back for his wife, Maria. The couple settled in Virginia and opened a restaurant in 1935 before moving down to Durham in 1944 and buying ABC Lunch, located at Five Points at what is now the bar Criterion. The family ran ABC for three years before opening University Grill near Brightleaf. When James died in 1959, George dropped out of UNC and ran the restaurant until 1968. The excellent Guess Road burger-and-dog joint the family opened, Jimmy’s Famous Hot Dogs, is named for James Pashales and his grandson, Jimmy Vurnakes.
Representing the other side is Ralitsa Kalfas, whose father, Vassilios Makros, opened a cafeteria in Winston-Salem in 1949. She and her husband, Kyriakos, moved to New York in 1978 and opened Spartacus Restaurant.
Nondas, her son, worked there throughout his teenage and college years. She recalled with a laugh how he would work just long enough to get the amount of money he thought he’d need for a fun night out. Nondas is partnered with John and Annette Drury – who also joined us for dinner – at Spartacus. He’s also teamed up with Jimmy Vurnakes and George Pashales at Jimmy’s Hot Dogs.
“I’m kind of the middle guy,” Nondas says, adding that George’s sister, Helen Vurnakes, has been the beloved hostess at Spartacus for 23 years. “But we’re all very close.”
As happy as he is now, it’s not exactly the life he dreamed. He wanted to enter the real estate world after college. And it was a real estate deal that brought him down to North Carolina in the early ’90s. But he got roped into helping launch Spartacus in Durham in 1993. He’s been here ever since, building his life and career around food.
Which brings us to what we ate and drank. Whew. Here goes: It started with pan-fried Halloumi cheese and family-style mussels with the same olive bread found at Spartacus. An ouzo toast gave way to the main meal, which featured the aforementioned sweet potato casserole and rack of lamb (the latter, again, is the Spartacus recipe), mac-and-cheese, roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta and shallots, sage-roasted red potatoes, fresh Greek salad and a whole red snapper prepared Mediterranean-style with lots of fresh rosemary, sea salt and olive oil. We polished it off with baklava ice cream sundaes. Like I said, whew.
Multiple conversations across the table made for a happy cacophony as we ate.
Nahale teased her husband for his pick-up line when they met at the Spartacus bar. “I had, like, four or five rings on,” she says. “He stares at them and says, ‘If you and I went out, you’d have a ring on every finger.’”
She did go out with him, obviously, but he never delivered on his boastful promise.
Nahale brings the down-home Southern touch to the household. Her grandfather built Daniel Boone Village and Boone Square in Hillsborough, and her mother still manages it.
Nahale’s dad, “a big Hawaiian guy,” is responsible for her exotic name, but she’s a North Carolina girl down to her accent, contrasting with her husband’s decidedly New York patter.
We talked basketball (the Kalfases are friends with the Krzyzewski family and big Duke fans), and other miscellany for a good long while as dinner wound down. But we got more than we bargained for when Ralitsa was invited to sing for us. I was expecting the teenager to bashfully decline, but she piped right up, launching into a fearless rendition of Adele’s “Chasing Pavements.” (Google Ralitsa Kalfas to see videos of her singing at Duke basketball games and elsewhere.) Turns out Ralitsa wasn’t the only talent at the table. Annette also serenaded us with “Mercy” by Duffy.
Substitute those modern pop songs for some old-fashioned gospel hymns, and we could easily have been on granddaddy’s back porch somewhere in the country, basking in the glow of a good meal and the company of our near-and-dears.
Thank the Lord, pass the ouzo.