The second installment in a series of personal recollections of cheap eats around Los Angeles. Next up, Farley Elliott remembers the day of eating endless gyro sandwiches at Papa Cristo's.
Stepping into Papa Cristo’s on Pico Boulevard feels like leaning into a warm hug, and that’s largely by design. Just look at the mural on the side of the building, or nearly any photo of Chrys Chrys, the affable man behind one of Los Angeles’ most successful Greek restaurants. Arms wide, smile ready. This is a place of familiarity, and has been for decades.
The first iteration of Papa Cristo’s was simply an import business, founded by Sam Chrys in 1948 with the intention to bring a bit of Greece to the West Coast of America. That meant, at the time, olive oils and wines mostly, but soon the market grew to include everything from canned goods to hard-to-source delicacies. As post-war businesses go, C & K Imports did well, and most days Sam Chrys could be found in the back of the building, cooking something small up for friends who stopped by.
In 1968, Sam’s son Chrys (this is long before the iconic white mustache) bought the successful business from his father, with plans to expand on those simple dishes his father was making by adding seating for a full restaurant. Toss on some blue and white checkered tablecloths, some sweeping murals of Athens, and a fading poster from the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding and you’ve got, basically, the same exact restaurant today, nearly 50 years on.
We would joke about paying off debts to each other in pounds of gyro meat, rather than cash
There’s a good chance that the first time you heard of Papa Cristo’s, someone was walking you through the insane Thursday night dinners they still put on every week in the main dining room. Long tables are set up for a Greek feast, which at $24 dollars a head includes wine, appetizers, two entrees, Greek salad, bread, baklava, coffee… It’s true family-style eating, the kind of thing you’d find in the backyard of your cousin’s house when he graduates from high school. There’s no pretense, no waiter walking you through what it means to share a plate of food.
Oh, and there are belly dancers. And musicians. And lots of singing along and clapping and dancing. Though sort of clunkily titled, the recurring My Big Fat Greek Thursday Night Dinners are more than a tradition; for many families, they’ve practically become ritual.
For my friends and me, our ritual was for years the Papa Cristo’s gyro. Heavily seasoned, spit-roasted, and shaved in heaps, the fatty, dense gyro meat became a shorthand for us all. We would joke about paying off debts to each other in pounds of the stuff, rather than cash, as we stuffed our faces for well under $10 apiece.
Sitting inside the market cafe space, wiping up the remaining tzatziki with crumbs of pita, or pressing our noses close to the warm spanakopita case to gauge the best of the bunch, always felt like a small town pleasure in the middle of a city I was still struggling to navigate. The surrounding neighborhood was to me a quizzical mix of Korean, Mexican, African American, and classic American restaurants and small businesses, but inside Papa Cristo’s it was all kitschy Greek with a big slice of charm. I’d peek down the aisles while waiting for my food, trying to decipher the labels.
Inside Papa Cristo’s it was all kitschy Greek with a big slice of charm
Inevitably, Chrys Chrys would be walking around the room, shaking hands and smiling with the regulars, or tucked into an upstairs office, poring over the books. Not being a food writer yet, I rarely noticed when a chef or owner was actually on the premises; I just sort of always assumed that the people making my food or running the restaurants I ate at were off somewhere else, leaving the details to a cadre of silent workers, so it impressed me to see the man, small in stature and large of heart, working the dining room.
I haven’t forgotten that level of hospitality, even today. To be greeted warmly, to be remembered at the door like an old friend, can often turn mediocre meals into lasting memories. There’s a lot that goes into starting and maintaining a restaurant, but when you look at places that have been open 30, 40, 50 years or more, the one thing that invariably links them is familiarity. It’s as if these places simply hold themselves in time, waiting for the next moment that you walk through the door, arms wide, smile ready.