The modern-day city of Thessaloniki in northern Greece is known for being the birth place of Alexander the Great in ancient times.
It's also where Teddy Keramidas of Altoona was born, in a small town outside the city where his mother still lives in a meager home with an outhouse and a wood burning stove.
But like the legendary king of ancient Greece, Keramidas left home and made something great of himself by bringing tasty, traditional Greek food, a strong work ethic and an inviting atmosphere to Altoona with The Athenian Cafe.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Teddy Keramidas and his daughter, Katrina Keramidas pose at The Athenian Cafe.
Serving both authentic Greek cuisine and American cafe favorites, The Athenian Cafe's menu is a mixture of what Keramidas ate growing up and what he learned to cook while working in diners in upstate New York for 20 years before moving to Altoona.
"I watched everyone else and just started doing it," he said.
His first local business was running The Altoona Diner, which he said served everything from hot dogs to lobster. But in an effort to simplify offerings and ensure quality, Keramidas said he slimmed down his menu and kept it "to the basics" when he decided to open The Athenian.
The Athenian Cafe
Address: 217 Union Ave., Altoona
Phone number: 949-0991
Web site: http://www.atheniancafe.com
Hours: 11 a.m.- 8 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Price range: $1.50 to $17.95
Specialties: Gyros, falafel, burgers and traditional Greek dinners
Seating capacity: 72
So along with burgers, salads and a variety sandwiches, gyros, falafel and traditional Greek platters are also regularly enjoyed by loyal customers. Most of the recipes are his own and made from scratch, Keramidas said.
"That's why I keep it simple, so I make sure everything is fresh," he added.
Dinner items like Mousaka, an eggplant and potato dish, Spanikopita, a traditional spinach pie, and Pasticcio, a Greek lasagna, are menu items that Keramidas' daughter, Katrina, remembers her father cooking at the restaurants he has owned throughout her life.
"That's where we spent all of our days," she said. "Morning to night, that's all he's ever done as long as I've grown up."
Katrina Keramidas added that her dad will sometimes prepare specialty items when he's in the mood, like lamb shanks or stuffed peppers. His homemade "recipes," she added, should be referred to in loose terms.
"There is no recipe," Katrina Keramidas said. "It's just a handful of this, a pinch of that. There's no measuring at all."
Loyal customers don't seem to mind his tactics. Doreen Agnew of Hollidaysburg has been stopping into The Athenian Cafe for her lunchbreak at work or for dinner with her family for the past six years.
"His food is just so tasty," she said. "I bring people from out of town here all the time, too. Friends from New York that also go to Greek restaurants out there, [say] this is as good as any Greek restaurant in New York or anywhere else. ... My son even eats the gyro meat with pancakes when we come. We eat a little of everything."
Barry Little of Altoona hadn't eaten Greek food before he tried it at The Athenian Cafe. Now he comes in for lunch at least once a month.
"The food is actually good and the service is fairly quick," he said. "It's been consistent, too. You don't get one thing one week and one thing another week."
Katrina Keramidas said she thinks the business has grown largely due to word of mouth, and that a bulk of their orders come in as take-outs or catering opportunities. Moving from their old location on Fairway Drive to the more visible Union Avenue store front over a year ago also helped bring in new customers.
It's the loyal customers who have followed Teddy Keramidas from location to location that have really become the heart of The Athenian Cafe.
"There are a lot of customers that come in here that are like family to us because they've grown with us and we've grown with them," she said.
Teddy Keramidas said he has customers that have been coming to his restaurants for 20 years. He likes that they know they can just sit down, take and clean their own plates and do just about anything they want to ensure they're having an enjoyable meal.
"I have a good communication with people," he said. "Even if I can't come out to talk with them, they come in the kitchen to say 'Hi.' We're very friendly here. That's the way I like it; I don't like it any other way."
Teddy Keramidas takes a break from work for one week a year, sometimes to travel back to Greece to visit his mother and other family. But every other week, he enjoys cooking for his customers and working for his kids.
"I like to make everybody happy, as long as I can make a living," he said. "I like to work anyway, so I'm always going to be in the kitchen."
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520.