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Constantine’s, Melody Grill — memories of city’s Greek past

-Submitted photo
John F. Kennedy greeting Fort Dodgers on a campaign tour in 1960, with Constantine’s restaurant providing the backdrop. Next to Kennedy is U.S. Rep. Merwin Coad and in foreground is Iowa Lt. Gov. Edward J. McManus.

The black convertible carrying a smiling and waving John F. Kennedy crept slowly down Central Avenue, passing by Constantine’s restaurant at Ninth Street and the Melody Grill in the City Square, as thousands of Fort Dodgers craned for a view of the Democratic presidential candidate.

Were you there? Remember Constantine’s and the Melody Grill? Unless you’re a Baby Boomer or older, probably not.

Like most businesses witnessing Kennedy’s campaign swing to the city on Sept. 20, 1960, the two restaurants no longer exist. Even their buildings are gone. Constantine’s once occupied the southeast corner of Ninth Street and Central Avenue. Now it’s a green space, the location of the DART bus transit center, overlooked by a pioneer-era mural. The Melody Grill was on the southeast corner of the square, and its space is now a parking area for Daniel Tire.

The two restaurants, like many in Fort Dodge’s history, shared a commonality: both were founded, owned and operated by Greek families.

“All of my recollections of Fort Dodge are happy ones,” said Koula Constantine Fotis, 98, who operated Constantine’s with her late husband, John Fotis. “Central Avenue, from the top of 12th Street all the way down to the band shelter, almost all the restaurants were Greek. We had an amazing Greek community. Our families were all so united.”

Both restaurants were started by Greek immigrants, as were others downtown including the Princess Cafe, Lafayette Cafe, OK Coffee Shop, Oasis Cafe, Butterfly Cafe, Maywood Restaurant and the Blue Bird, and more.

Koula’s father, John Constantine, and his brother, Steve, opened Constantine’s in 1922.

“My father and uncle had a charm about them that everyone in Fort Dodge inhaled,” she said.

They were later joined by their brother, Chris. The Fotis’ managed the restaurant — known for its down-home menu and homemade candies and ice cream — from 1946 until it closed in 1970.

The Melody Grill was started under the name of the Rainbow Grill by George and Chrysanthe Chardoulias in 1930 at 23 S. Seventh St. and in 1933 they moved the restaurant to 511 Central Ave., on the square. Their son, Chris, eventually took over the business with his sister, Angela, and her husband, Pete Capellos. Chris’ son Mike became the third generation to own the grill before he sold it in 1983.

“I might be the last Greek in Fort Dodge,” said Mike Chardoulias, who eventually went to work for the late Tom Cairney at his Tom Thumb Drive In restaurant at 1412 A St. West and managed it for 30 years before retiring; he continues to work there part time. Mike’s six children all worked at the restaurant or the contiguous Dairy Queen while they were growing up and his son Tony was a manager.

Years ago, Fort Dodge had a strong Greek presence. Too few to support a Greek Orthodox Church, Greek families used St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and once a month, a Greek Orthodox priest from Des Moines would come to town for a Communion service. Many of the immigrants worked in the shoe repair and shoe-shining business and for the railroad. But the restaurant business was where they made their most visible mark.

Jean Capellos, a retired high school teacher of 33 years in suburban Chicago whose parents were Angela and Pete, was asked about the affinity of Greeks and the restaurant business in Fort Dodge.

“Because Greece was back then such a poor country, with hard, tough work in olive groves and the like, many who came to America vowed never again they would work on the lands. Greeks are known for hospitality so that may be why many went into the restaurant business or others that provided services for people. They did not want to live in poverty working the land. My dad became a leather worker when he came here.”

The Greek community in Fort Dodge was close-knit, Capellos recalled:

“On hot summer Sundays, Greek families would gather at Oleson Park for picnics. Thea (Aunt) Katina would vie with Thea Athena on who made the best baklava. Smoke poured from the men’s cigarettes and cigars during loud arguments over Greek and American politics. The creme de la creme were picnic gatherings at the Grotto in West Bend.

“Every day after school my two sisters and I walked to the house of my godmother, Maria Pappas, for Greek lessons. We did our best to copy and recite Greek sentences. ‘The lemon. The fine lemon. Here Mama are two fine lemons.’ We found it tedious as it interrupted our social lives and all things American. However, we loved seeing and talking to daughters Sophie, Theano, Tessie and Demetra who wore fashionable black and white saddles and pretty skirts and sweaters. On special occasions after our lessons my godmother would make us delicious Greek spaghetti with burnt butter and cinnamon.

“Tessie Pappas was the children’s librarian at our beautiful Andrew Carnegie Library. When the polio outbreak occurred in 1955, Tessie would not relent and rolled carts of books to the children in the isolation wards, including myself. Five months at Lutheran Hospital was a long time for a 7-year-old, but Tessie gave me the joy of reading.”

The Melody Grill was open from 6 a.m. to 3 a.m. and catered to shift workers and the “bar crowd,” said Mike Chardoulias, who had earlier worked at Treloars Inn before joining his parents at the Grill.

“The Melody was straight working class,.” he said.

And it was a true family business — almost everyone working there was family, he said.

Jean Capellos recalled that at 5:30 a.m., her dad or her Uncle Chris (they alternated weeks, working either the day or night shifts) “baked ham and beef slabs in the ovens and cut and diced potatoes for French fries and mashed potatoes. He made breakfast doughnuts by hand. The Greek cook at the Melody was a shy, soft spoken man, Jim Togeas. He would slowly simmer ham and split pea and navy bean and ham soups, vegetable beef stew and pot roast. Meat loaf, Salisbury steak, hot roast beef sandwiches were favorites but, by far the favorite, was a giant pork tenderloin sandwich.

“Jim was also known for the Melody pies. Lemon meringue, banana cream, cherry and apple were so popular that they would sell out well before the lunch run was finished. The 1 a.m. crowd enjoyed ham and eggs, a Denver sandwich, T-bone steak, pork chops or fried chicken.”

The Melody had six wooden booths and a lunch counter with eight silver bar stools with red cushions where children would whirl waiting for an ice cream sundae or chocolate malted milk shake. Capellos’ mother typed up the daily menu, was cashier and waitress, and her sisters and cousins worked late into Friday and Saturday mornings when the heaviest number of customers poured in.

“It is no wonder,” Capellos said, “that restaurants would close down when the third-generation sons and daughters opted out for better jobs with higher pay and without 6 a.m. to 3 a.m. hours. Two families in Fort Dodge carved out the hard life of the restaurant business.”

Constantine’s was more of an “uptown” restaurant, Mike Chardoulias said — located at one of the busiest intersections on Central Avenue with the old Post Office directly across the street and Younkers on the northwest corner.

Most Fort Dodgers tasted their very first Cherry Coke there. In the basement was equipment to make its own candy and its own ice cream. The copper kettles and other candy-making equipment had already been in use for 100 years. One of its customers’ favorites: the Chocolate Clown sundae — tulip glass, chocolate syrup, marshmallow cream, one scoop vanilla and one scoop chocolate ice cream, chocolate syrup, marshmallow cream and roasted red skin peanuts. A top menu item was the hot beef sandwich with homemade mashed potatoes and brown gravy.

One of its regular customers, Tom Goodman, a 1965 Fort Dodge Senior High classmate of Jean Capellos, recalled, “I’d order French fries and water for a dime, purchased at the counter with the stools, next to the candy case with fine chocolates, something I only got to look at, as I couldn’t afford them. To sit in the booths, you had to spend 25 cents so you couldn’t sit with your friends and just talk (gossip). I never went into Constantine’s unless I had a dime for the counter, or if I wanted to go first-class, I would have to have a quarter in my pocket.”

The most popular candies made there were chocolate-covered English toffee and peanut brittle.

“We sent them to the soldiers from Webster County in the care boxes during World War II,” said Andy Fotis, whose parents were Constantine’s managers.

Andy, who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, and was in the restaurant business for 45 years, worked there as a soda jerk while in high school. “It was the greatest job in the world for a 16-year-old kid. Beautiful girls would come to the counter and eat the sundaes I prepared for them.”

Other favorite memories: “Customers everywhere who all knew each other gossiping and chatting and ready for a good cup of coffee and a piece of pecan pie. With an open kitchen, the sounds of plates rattling, waitresses yelling out orders to the cooks without writing anything down, a mistake was never made. We had 12 counter seats (red with chrome bases), 16 booths that sat four, and a large u-shaped booth in black that sat eight.”

Cokes were 10 cents, shoestring fries a quarter, the Chocolate Clown sundae 35 cents.

Capellos said Constantine’s candies “and their art of chocolate making were unparalleled. I remember the candy boxes were wrapped in shiny white paper and tied with blue ribbon, the colors of Greece. My favorites were the fancy mints in orange, green, pink and yellow colors. Teenage girls and boys in school letter jackets swarmed Constantine’s for French fries and cokes. It was a happy place.”

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