In Greek mythology, the Peloponnesian region of Arcadia was the home of Pan, son of Hermes. A fun-loving god who roamed forests and mountains, Pan enjoyed music and the company of hunters and shepherds. In 1955, Pete Contos arrived in Denver from a village in Arcadia. The 20-year-old brought “not a dime in his pocket” and knew “not a word of English.” But for the next 65 years, Contos brought music, food, hospitality and humor to the Mile High City. Along the way, he made innumerable contributions to not only the Greek community but to also Denver as a whole.
Contos washed dishes but quickly transitioned to bartending at some of Denver’s swankiest spots. In 1962, he and a partner bought the neon-signed Satire Lounge on Colfax Avenue. (In 1960, the Satire declined to book the then-unknown Bob Dylan…because the Smothers Brothers didn’t care for the disheveled folk singer.) A string of restaurants followed the Satire, including an iconic diner that has graced often-gritty Colfax since 1942.
Although he served up omelets and Greek specialties (including Denver’s first gyros), Contos’ contributions went well beyond culinary. Always active in his Greek Orthodox church — where he met his wife Liz — Contos helped found Denver’s Greek Festival in 1972, and, with other proud Greeks like Jim Peros and Taki Dadiotis, persuaded the city government to designate a six-block stretch of Colfax as “Greek Town,” Denver’s first (and only) official cultural town. “Two unnamed Greeks” were noted as Denver residents in the 1870 Census…the number of citizens with Greek heritage is now expanded to about 30,000 statewide.
Beyond his businesses and cultural boosterism, though, lived a man who helped countless people — including many former employees — manage medical expenses, achieve higher education, and fund their own fledgling businesses, such as a number of restaurants. “Pete always said, ‘I know what it’s like to wake up hungry,’ recalls Liz. His childhood was very poor. He wanted to see people do better and gave out so many loans I teased him about needing a banking license.”
Contos passed away on May 12, 2019, at the age of 85. Tributes flowed in from politicians and celebrities, and more than 1,500 people showed up to bid the well-loved restaurateur goodbye. Although the pandemic continues to present challenges, the Contos family carries on, operating four restaurants bearing the proud Greek’s name: Pete’s Satire Lounge (Mexican and pub fare), Pete’s Kitchen and Pete’s University Park Cafe (Greek-influenced American diner offerings), and Pete’s Central One, serving classic Greek dishes such as moussaka, saganaki and spanakopita. When you visit, don’t forget to raise a glass to Pete Contos, a local legend and one of Denver’s great Greeks.