UW News

October 20, 2021

The Jackson School’s Taso Lagos reflects on becoming American at his family’s restaurant, the Continental

faded photo of a restaurant with an older car out front

The Continental Greek Restaurant and Pastry Shop, owned by the family of the Jackson School’s Taso Lagos, sat on University Way for almost 40 years.

In 2013, Seattle’s U District neighborhood lost one of its most cherished businesses. The Continental Greek Restaurant and Pastry Shop sat on University Way, two blocks from the University of Washington’s Seattle campus, for nearly 40 years before closing its doors that June. News of the closure was met with testimonials from customers, many of whom first started patronizing the business as students, faculty or staff and returned year after year.

The restaurant was owned and operated by the family of Taso Lagos, a lecturer at the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies. He’s now looking back on his family’s business — as well as sharing recipes — in his memoir “Cooking Greek, Becoming American: Forty Years at Seattle’s Continental Restaurant,” due to be published this fall by McFarland.

woman standing in restaurant

Lagos’ mother, Helen, woke up at 2 a.m. every morning, seven days a week, to start her day at the Conti.

Lagos’ father and mother emigrated from Greece in 1967 and became part owners of the Continental in 1974, gaining full ownership two years later. His brother Demetre began managing it after college. They worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with days off only when the restaurant was closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. When they were approached about selling the business, Lagos’ father and mother, aged 82 and 75, respectively, decided it was time to retire.

In his book, Lagos shares how the Continental, which he affectionately calls “the Conti,” was more than just a business to his family.

“This book is a testament to the power of the community we found and how it changed our family,” he said. “The Conti helped my family become Americans. It introduced us to American society and culture, and as a result, we changed and adapted to our new society in ways that otherwise might not have taken place.”

UW Notebook asked Lagos to share more about what the Continental meant to his family.

Your past books include a biography of theater mogul Alexander Pantages and a look at the rivalry between two early 20th-century preachers. Why did you decide to follow those up with a memoir about your family’s restaurant?

I stumbled onto this book. I’d just finished my first book on Pantages, and my creative juices were flowing, so I decided to put them to use by writing a memoir. I had no idea it would be turned into a book. In fact, this was one book that I didn’t want published, because the closing of the beloved Conti was too painful for me. Writing the memoir manuscript was meant to be a cleansing or closure exercise for me — as a way to clear my soul and not for others to read. So after I wrote it, I hid it in a file on my desktop, intending to forget about it.

Meanwhile, I was under contract with McFarland for a historical survey of Greek restaurants in the United States, which was to include personal reflections on my family’s operation. COVID-19 hit, and it was not possible to do the research for the survey book, so I asked the publisher if they would be interested in the memoir manuscript. They were so that’s how it got published.

What made the Conti such a special gathering space for the community?

It was very much like a typical Greek village, a “kafeneion,” where everybody gathers, and it functions as a social glue for the community. That’s what my family did at the Conti — they brought a bit of the village to the U District. And our customers became friends. That’s why it was so sad for us when my parents decided to retire and close shop; it was the ending of not one friendship, but literally hundreds.

What can people learn about the immigration experience by reading your book?

man shakes hands with person out of frame in a restaurant

Lagos’ brother Demetre always lent a friendly hand and smiling face to customers.

There are places like the Conti spread across the country that help inculcate immigrants into American culture. In fact, I cannot think of a more powerful institution that helps them do that than restaurants.  This is the importance of the Conti and ethnic restaurants in general; not only do they introduce new cuisines into American society, from which all of us benefit, but their owners themselves are introduced to and interact with Americans in profound and authentic ways.

It’s social contact, the kind that changes lives. A customer could walk into the Conti and my mom knew immediately what he or she wanted to eat. She was a “borrowed” mom to everybody from grunge band musicians to other renowned people like Bill Russell, Gloria Steinem and Mary Gates, mother of Bill, who once told my father that her son would grow up to become a famous electrical engineer. Immigrant restaurant owners provide a service to the community, but in return they become part of the American fabric.

It’s complicated because immigrants are constantly negotiating their identity. There is not a moment in the decades we’ve been here when we didn’t ask ourselves: When and where do we stop being Greek and become American? It’s not easy, even though the Conti helped us become American by osmosis. Friendships with customers made us feel at home in the U.S., but it took a long time. I don’t think we realized this until after the restaurant closed.

What place do family-run and community spaces like the Conti still have in the U District, Seattle and other areas that are changing rapidly due to development and a rising cost of living?

portrait of older man

It was the dream of Lagos’ father George to make the Conti a communal place.

I hope community spaces still have a place in our lives. If such spaces die out completely, both new immigrants and the community at large are poorer for it. It’s not easy owning and operating a small business. But the friendships and interactions — watching our customers grow, have kids, their kids have their own kids and so on — over 40 years are priceless. When that stops, we are no longer a community. Neighborhoods become an airport, with people just passing through.