Tickets lined the upper counter of the tight kitchen at Newest Lunch in Schenectady Friday morning. Cook Gus Plakas worked quickly on the stove, his spatula scraping against the grill as he moved orders to plates.
“He is a perfectionist,” said owner George Plakas of his brother. “It doesn’t leave the kitchen without it being to his liking.”
George Plakas walked up and down the narrow path behind the counter that morning, greeting customers seated on every other stool because of COVID.
He smiled underneath his mask, the occasional laugh escaping as he chatted with folks who have been in the family-owned diner-style restaurant on Albany Street time and time again. Plakas said his goal–eventually– is to expand the seating area of the restaurant into the adjoining space. He also said another location in the county has been talked about too.
It’s no surprise for this community institution.
On Tuesday the restaurant’s contributions to Schenectady were recognized when Mayor Gary McCarthy presented Plakas with a key to the city for its dedication.
The restaurant turns 100 — at some point this year. The family isn’t quite sure when because the owners don’t know the exact date the restaurant opened. But they do know it opened in 1921 and has been owned by Greek restaurateurs ever since.
For the Plakas-Papanikos famili who bought the restaurant in 1987 one thing has always remained true, it’s all about family.
John “Unkle” Papanikos owned and worked at the restaurant for several decades before retiring to his home country of Greece, where he died in 2020.
His memory remains intact at the restaurant, where the latest generation is busy taking landline phone orders every five minutes, or racing to greet customers every time the door chimes.
Plakas said he’s thankful and honored by the mayor for giving the restaurant the key to the city. But, what made the moment even more special was the inclusion of Papanikos’ name on the plaque.
“I just got goosebumps,” Plakas said, a slight glaze resting over his eyes as he continued to read the plaque. “That is literally the highlight to me. He’s the reason we are doing any of this.”
They even spelled “Unkle” right on the plaque, Sarah Plakas said.
George Plakas said his uncle stopped going to school at a young age in Greece and so he had to teach himself everything, which is how he came to spell uncle exactly how it sounded–with a K.
The family gave up trying to change his mind about it and Papanikos became known as Unkle to everyone, customers and family alike.
It’s moments like that which give the restaurant its family feeling, Plakas said.
Michael Davis, who sat at the counter waiting for his usual to come– a piece of French toast, one egg over easy, home fries with peppers and onions and a green tea — has been going to Newest Lunch for 20 to 30 years. Sometimes he goes with his dad, Ural Davis, who also has a usual order of soup with a hotdog.
“Me and my father have had heart to heart conversations here,” Davis said, noting they’ve even cried in the restaurant. “It’s like they’re another family.”
The employees feel the same way toward the customers, who they often ask about their families, work and whatever else is going on in their lives.
The dozen or so collages of photos of customers dining over the years are a telling sign of just how friendly the place is –every photo shows a smiling face seated in a booth or at the counter. So many photos were taken over the years that the restaurant had to stop making more collages because they didn’t have space on the wall to hang them, said Sarah Plakas.
That core customer base is what has kept the business going for so long, Plakas said.
“It’s where everyone in the community goes,” said Schenectady City Police Chief Eric Clifford.
He had two hotdogs with soup, while McCarthy had a hotdog with the works — a hotdog with mustard, the restaurant’s staple meat sauce and onions.
McCarthy’s assistant, Carissa Vazzana, also had a hotdog with the works, but buried the onions.
And people love the food.
But the recipe to the cherished meat sauce is top secret, George Plakas said. So much so that only he and two other family members know how to make it.
Plakas said he’s hoping people will keep coming back to try the meat sauce and every other item on the menu for another 100 years. He said maybe his kids will be the next generation to take it over. He already has plans to bring his oldest in to help with dishes and cleaning when turns 12 or 13.
As for what Papanikos would say if he were there today?
“Good job boys,” Plakas said fondly.