By Debra Cornwell
Opening a restaurant in 2010 could have been risky business. For John Spanos, it was good for his health. After thirty years of working six or seven days a week for fifteen hours a day, he retired in 2007.
Three years later, he went to the doctor because he didn't feel well, Spanos recalls, "The doctor said, ‘Take this pill,' and I said, ‘Forget the pill, I'm going back to work. I realized that not everything is about money. I missed working. I missed the people.'" The result is John's Cafe & Grill in Ranson at Potomac Marketplace, a gem of a Greek- American restaurant.
So in his retirement, John has cut back on his hours from fifteen to eleven and to just six days week as Sunday is reserved for church and visiting family. He is joined at the restaurant by his wife, Annitsa, geology professor at Hagerstown Community College, and his nineteen-year-old daughter, Irene. The idea behind John's Cafe & Grill is a low key approach - a restaurant operation small enough for the three of them to run with no extra staff. They might be low key, but their sense of humor is on display. There's a picture honoring Irene as employee of the month. Every month.
John and Annitsa have three sons, who, as yet, have not joined the restaurant business. The restaurant bug has bitten Irene, though. She remembers wrapping forks at age seven, and says the best part is seeing a happy customer. To ensure her success in the business, she is studying business at Blue Ridge Community College. She makes all of the pastries and desserts at John's Cafe & Grill, except the two that are her mother's domain. Eventually, she would like to have her own bakery.
John was born in Greece to a family who owned hundreds of goats--he was destined to be a shepherd and was one until he turned fourteen when he started working in concrete construction. At age eighteen, John immigrated to America. He worked as a cook in restaurants in New Jersey. He then moved up to chef, and when he married Annitsa, he worked as head chef for twenty-five years at her father's restaurant in the Baltimore area. John and Annitsa both hail from Karpathos Island--a place they note has similarities to West Virginia--mountains and a rural character. "It's one of the reasons we love it--it is a different type of mountain in West Virginia but it is beautiful here," he compares.
When the family sold the Baltimore establishment--a 375 seat restaurant/sports bar/banquet facility--in 2007, it closed a fortyone- year-old chapter in the family's life. Although they opened John's Cafe & Grill in Ranson three years ago, they are hardly newcomers to the area. Annitsa's father bought land in Harpers Ferry in the 1960's.
She remembers camping here in a tent on weekends and in the summer. Eventually, they built a house, and every weekend and every summer would be spent in Jefferson County. "Really, I've lived here my whole life. I've driven the back roads. I've seen all the changes. " she says. "Everything means a lot to me. I've seen a lot of places go out of business in these times," she reflects.
However, the Spanos family were newcomers to the business scene in Jefferson County in 2010. "We've been well-received, welcomed, really. We've had regular customers from day one who eat here two, three, four times a week," remarks Annitsa.
When asked how often he dines at John's Cafe & Grill, loyal customer Ed Tritt says he goes there, "Every time I get hungry." He adds,"The food can be described in one word, "great". I'll add another word, "wonderful". Great people, too. In Greek, it would be called "poli kala."
In addition to the cafe, there is seasonal outdoor dining at John's Cafe & Grill plus they cater corporate and private parties and weddings for up to 200 guests. Customers who don't need full service catering can order party trays and platters for carry out. Annitsa also offers wedding and special occasion cakes. Based on the chef's whim, there are daily and monthly specials at the restaurant.
One of my favorite Greek dishes is Pastichio--the Greek version of lasagna. The noodles are much longer than the grocery store variety, and in addition to marinara sauce, there is a touch of béchamel sauce and a sprinkling of cinnamon. It is a gorgeous sight to behold and is fabulous.(Pastitsio, sometimes spelled pastichio, is a Greek and Mediterranean baked pasta dish including ground beef and béchamel sauce in its best-known form.
Pastitsio is a version of the Italian dish pasticcio di pasta. Wikipedia) The gyro - thinly sliced beef and lamb wrapped in a grilled pita and stuffed with lettuce, tomato, onions, and tzatziki sauce--is served as a platter with a salad and a choice of another side.( A gyro is a Greek dish of meat roasted on a vertical spit. It is commonly served in a sandwich with tomato, onion, and tzatziki sauce, wrapped in pita or sandwich bread. Wikipedia) The menu is so extensive, and it is proof of the deep experience John has as a chef. There are many American dishes as well including their award-winning chili. What's the secret? Annitsa says, "Ask John."
John just shrugs his shoulders. They aren't talking, but it recently won first place at the 2nd Annual Country Roads Car Club Chili Cook Off. There are Greek spreads, skewers, salads, appetizers, and entrees you've never heard of but will want to try.
The offerings include sandwiches, seafood, a kids' menu, and vegan/ vegetarian dishes, oh, and desserts. Lots of beautiful tempting pastries.
Bottom line? Annista points to the wall where it says, "‘Good food, friends, times,' It's about a family connection." And the food is better than good. Like Ed Tritt says, "Great."