“Meet us at Cristo’s!” How many times did I say that or hear it from one of my friends when we were teenagers? It’s long gone now, but the greasy spoon was a place where we shared dreams and made memories.
It was casual, clean and cozy, with cartoon decals of steaming hot dogs and hamburgers on the plate-glass windows. There was no flashy, neon sign; just the restaurant name in yellow lettering on the front door. Inside, white, paper tablecloths covered small, square wooden tables scattered around the room. Four wooden chairs that squawked against the floor when we slid them out were placed at each table.
As teenagers, we ran as a pack so the first thing we did when we got to Cristo’s was to push a few tables together and crowd around them. There we could stay for hours, talking about everything and nothing as only young people can. Whether after school or a last stop after a night out, Cristo’s was where we could be found.
Spiros and Jimmy were the two young Greek men who owned and ran the place, neither of whom spoke much English. Spiros waited tables. He was slim and lithe, with dark eyes, and a lock of straight, black hair that flopped onto his forehead. He always wore a white apron tied at the waist over dark trousers, a white shirt and a scowl. The scowl gave him gave him a certain appeal, a hint of rebellion bubbling close to the surface, and he was just handsome enough to get away with it. Sometimes my friend, Benny, would get it into his head to make Spiros smile. I don’t know how he did it, but he often succeeded.
Jimmy, the other owner, couldn’t have been more different. Round and smiling, with black hair that waved away from his face, he was a Greek version of the Pillsbury Dough Boy (minus the pastry chef hat). He was always behind the counter, either at the grill or the cash. He knew we would stay for hours and never spend a lot of money but he always greeted us with a warm smile. And he made the best fries.
They were freshly-made, not those sickly-looking, frozen, matchstick fries that try to pass for the real thing. Jimmy’s were a perfect, crispy golden-brown on the outside with pale, piping-hot, white flesh on the inside. We would watch him lift the fry basket out of the hot oil, then pile the fries into white porcelain bowls. Spiros would swoop by the counter, pick up the bowls and drop them unceremoniously in front of us.
Some of my friends sprinkled fine grains of white salt on them. Others reached for the old-fashioned, glass vinegar bottle and generously squirted some on their fries. Not me. It was the plastic ketchup packets that I reached for. After making a diagonal cut in the corner of a small packet, I squeezed it gently from the bottom, carefully and methodically placing a tiny pearl of bright red ketchup on each and every fry. When I was done, it was a work of art.
Sometimes after eating we’d order coffee. To be honest, it wasn’t very good, but it gave us a reason to linger a little longer. Then, reluctantly, we’d head for our respective homes, having had our daily fill of good friends, good fries and mediocre coffee, until we met up again the next day.