Denver’s most prominent chef


Posted Tue, Mar 29, 2011

Photos by Leah Millis

DENVER — With his broad shoulders, curly white hair, his fingers crested with expensive-looking golden rings, Pete Contos is hard to miss. When he walks into his own restaurant on East Colfax Avenue. people notice. He seems to know everyone. Contos stops by the bustling countertop, touches shoulders, shakes hands, in a nearby booth a group of older gentlemen greet him with enthusiasm.

“Good to see you, good to see you.” He says almost like a grandfather.

Pete’s Kitchen’s walls are covered with awards, feature articles about the iconic Denver diner. You will also see photographs of him with various celebrities. The largest photograph in the back is of a young, handsome, dark haired gentleman with a big white-toothed smile.

“That’s me.” Contos says, “I have one in all of my restaurants.”

Contos wasn’t always a prominent fixture in Denver, though he’s been a bar and restaurant owner locally for 44 years, he was born and raised in a small town near Tripoli in Greece. Contos was raised a farmer as the youngest with three sisters and one brother. At age 20 Contos decided to come to America without any money or knowing any English. He came to Denver in 1955 to stay with his uncle, who passed away not a year later. Contos said that because he didn’t know English, his first foot in the door of the restaurant industry was as a dishwasher. He then moved up the ranks to busboy , bar-boy and eventually bar tender. In 1962 he bought his first establishment, the Satire Lounge.

Over the years Contos expanded his ownership to where he is today- with eight places, mostly along Colfax Avenue. On his website, it says Pete’s Restaurants are all family owned and operated. Contos is married to Elizabeth, a Denver native, who helps manage the books and the business side with his two daughters, Andrea and Nikki. His son Dean works in the restaurants and so does his son-in-law Dean Phillips.

Contos credits much of his success to the family aspect of the business, “myself and my family, we’re honest people. We serve good food. When you have good food and honest business, everything comes along,” he said.

Contos has built a small empire along Colfax Ave.–with six of his eight businesses located along the historic avenue. Over the years Contos has seen a steady change, “it has changed for the better. It’s been good,” he said.

Most Denverites know of Pete and the legends that surround him. Like, for example, that he’s a member of the Greek Mafia. It’s hard to believe that when you actually sit down and talk to him. And many have. Contos says he visits every one of his restaurants once a day, every day. When he enters he’s constantly stopping to greet people. His employees are important to him, too. During the recent economic recession Contos said they have felt it, but they he has been able to keep all of his staff.

“Where would they go?” he said, adding that it was very important to him to make cutbacks in other ways so nobody would have to be let go.

As far as the food, Contos, being Greek through and through has a touch of home in all of his places. At Pete’s Kitchen, his famous diner, there are a number of Greek dishes. Contos says he won’t put anything on the menu that he himself wouldn’t eat.

Colorado native Merlene Reynolds says she has been coming to Pete’s for years and often has coffee with Contos himself. “It’s the best place in the area,” she says.

In Pete’s Kitchen, aside from the usual customers, framed photos of numerous celebrities smile down on the restaurant from above the exit. The lineup of guests are impressive: everyone from Denver Bronco quarterback Elway to New York Knicks Carmelo Anthony to Contos’ favorite, actress Drew Barrymore. He says he has no idea why they come to Pete’s Kitchen.

“They heard I had good food, what can I say?” he laughs.

Father and son duo Erik and Chuck Troe have matching bowler hats sitting next to them as they enjoy their breakfast at Pete’s Kitchen. Chuck, who now lives in L.A. compared Pete’s to a world famous diner in L.A. called “The Pantry,” saying it was just as good. Chuck, who was just visiting loves Pete’s, “I’ve been here before, I was here yesterday, I’ll be here tomorrow.”

With his 78th birthday coming up in April, Contos looks good, his constant laughter keeps him young at heart. As for the empire and the possibility of its expansion?

Contos shrugs and in his thick Greek accent says not now, then he pauses and with a noticeable twinkle in his eye he says, “well, if the price is right.”

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4 Responses to “Denver’s most prominent chef”

  1. Kevin Larson Says:

    Noticed a couple typos but otherwise I thought it was good! Pretty sure I’ve eaten there before so it’s good to see the face that created everything


  2. Justin Schoenborn Says:

    Really enjoyed this one. Great back story on Pete. Good detail and it really makes you feel like you know the man. Solid photos as well. I’m hungry now!


  3. Heather M. Smith Says:

    Hey girl! Good story and great pics!! I want to go eat there now! 😉


  4. Cherise Scrivner Says:

    I really like this story.All the old photos and commentary from the past is great.You really make the reader want to stop by and meet Contos personally and enjoy the food!


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