by Noah Carandanis
The taste of feta, the snipping of scissors, and the sound of a bouzouki all impacted the tapestry of Portland’s Old Town. Early Greek immigrants had an entrepreneurial spirit which produced wonderful shops and businesses within the Portland community. Greeks introduced Portlanders to their unique products and services while simultaneously displaying their customary hospitality. The Old Town History Project—a community-driven effort established in 1999 to preserve the history of the cultural groups involved in Old Town—generously donated the transcripts and recordings of interviews they conducted with Greek business owners in Old Town to the Hellenic American Cultural Center and Museum in 2022. This essay will explore three Greek-owned businesses that operated in Old Town.
George Papas: Johnny’s Greek Villa Restaurant
“My father bringing me down here about four o’clock in the morning, getting into a bus, and going and picking strawberries all day in the hot sun” was Papas’ earliest recollection of Old Town. This is a picture which many contemporary Portlanders would find surprising given the state of Old Town today. His father’s journey in Old Town began working as a bartender at Demas Tavern. He then went on to start a grocery store called Johnny’s Grocery, which was owned from around 1959 until about 1993 when the family decided to sell it. The store began as a meat market and grocery store which restaurants would source their meats from, but a small kitchen in the back room proved that the store’s products could be expanded. “I really learned how to cook because my father was a fantastic cook. And I worked with him and a lot of the times he would always say ‘if you’re going to eat something that you like, you better learn how to cook it yourself.’” They decided to open up a deli in the store, which would use products and cheeses imported from Greece. Unfortunately, the transition did not immediately pay off due to the reputation of Old Town.
Even with some obstacles, no area was bad enough to keep people away from good food. Initially, the staff would cook lunch in the back for themselves, that was until other store owners began to ask for samples. After some rearranging, “we started serving some of the meals that we were cooking for ourselves. And after that more tables went in and then even more tables, and all of a sudden instead of what used to be a meat market, a grocery store, and then a deli/grocery store you might say, it became a full-fledged restaurant with lunch and dinner.” George was cooking, along with his sister-in-law, brother-in-law, and another Greek man who they taught how to cook. With all these changes, the business name also changed. Originally being Johnny’s Grocery, it evolved into Johnny’s Old Town Deli, which gave way to Johnny’s Old Town Deli and Greek Villa. “And then it just became Johnny’s Greek Villa Restaurant at the end.”
Many of their clientele were workers in the Old Town district looking for a bite to eat. “[My father] became friends with the customers. I think that carried into us. Our customers really were not customers. They were friends. They were friends that came not to a restaurant but to our house. And they were treated as such.” Patrons even included the Chief of Police and various city mayors frequenting the business. George’s family business illuminated Old Town to not only Greek cuisine, but the hospitality which is ever present within Greece’s cultures.
Gus Bolos: Old Town Barbershops
“When I was old enough to go down to get the haircuts, he always cut my hair.” Nick Bolos, the son of Gus Bolos, recalled many things about his father’s various barbershops. “My recollections of the place on Burnside was the Union Mission Gospel across the street, and they had those flashing lights that told the story about something … I was just fascinated by that every time I went down to his barbershop and looked up.” After that initial location, he worked for a friend who was also a barber, until he reopened his last barbershop location on Northwest Sixth.
Nick’s father provided men’s and women’s haircuts to the Portland community at the location on Sixth until the early 1960s. Giving haircuts was not his only specialty though, as he also fostered a communal space for people to come and feel cared about. Mr. Johnson was not a Greek customer, but he ended up becoming a good friend of Gus Bolos. “He had two boys. My dad would cut their hair and this one boy, he was cutting his hair here in the back of the nape of the neck. My father called the father over … and the kid had ringworm. It was a little red. He knew what it was, and he told Mr. Johnson, ‘If you come to my house … I can make a medicine that will cure it.” Along with his other customers, Mr. Bolos’s barber shop hosted plenty of Greek clientele from the Portland community. The Greek presence in Old Town was noticeable, and many of the Greek bachelors would find community and conversations within the walls of the various Greek owned businesses. “During the war … I remember the Greek bachelors would come in there and they would argue politics, and he’d have to tell them, cool it, because they’d get heated … That’s where they would discuss politics and things of that sort when they all got together in there … It was kind of a happy place.”
Steve Voreas (as recounted in an interview with Chrysanthie Voreas): Athens West
Steve Voreas held various occupations throughout his life, including being the owner of a restaurant and a nightclub. Situated on Sixth and Everett, the Voreas Food and Bar hosted a multitude of characters. Local Greeks, steel workers, bridge workers and Greeks who lived outside the Portland area who worked on the railroads frequented the establishment. The bar was a partnership between Steve Voreas and his brother, which they eventually turned into the Greek nightclub known as Athens West. It was a first of its kind attraction in Portland, Oregon. “There was a fountain with I think naked angels outside. The place was just absolutely gaudy on the inside. It was great. It was high-class.” Although they offered the usual lineup for nightclub activities, Athens West had a distinctly Greek flair. Belly dancers entertained alongside bouzouki music in a time when people had “never really seen real bouzouki music.” From 1963 until the early 1970s, the Athens West was “the best and first and classiest Greek restaurant night club in the state of Oregon.” Steve Voreas and his wife, after the closing of Athens West, went on to establish a tavern on Farmington Road which they would eventually be able to retire from. The Athens West demonstrated that Greek business owners could offer more than just foods or services. There was interest in Greek music and entertainment, something which lives on through the annual Portland Greek Festival at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
Greeks brought fresh and distinctive businesses to Portland’s Old Town, which added much life to the district. The various expressions of entrepreneurship within the Greek community dashes the assumption that there is one type of stereotypical Greek immigrant business. The landscape of Portland’s history was beautified by the unique offerings each of these businesses contributed. George Papas exposed the city’s residents to vibrant tastes and lively gastronomic experiences. The sparks of conversation and debate would flow within the barbershops of Gus Bolos. Finally, the glitz and glamour of Athens West entertained the community by providing a venue bursting with Greek charm and class. Though each business differed in their offerings, they were unified by the Greek spirit of entrepreneurship which enriched the rhythm and life of Old Town.
About the project
HACCM collects the oral histories of community members who can speak to the Hellenic-American experience of the Pacific Northwest. Our oral history committee is actively collecting new interviews, and if you are interested in participating, please contact HACCM. Funding for oral history research for this project was provided by the Oregon Cultural Trust.
HACCM’s exhibition, “Greek Entrepreneurs: Past & Present” takes a look at some of these and other stories of local businesses that were owned and operated by Greek-Americans. To learn more about this exhibit, listen to these oral histories, and more, please visit HACCM today!