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The very last dance at Papa's Taverna

Papa's Taverna owner Ted Papageorgacopoulos, right, dances with Sandy Alarcon as his wife, Glynnis Papageorgacopoulos, sings at Saturday's farewell party for the longtime Greek restaurant and tavern on Lakeville Highway.

Scott Manchester / For the Argus-Courier
Published: Friday, January 25, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 24, 2013 at 10:43 a.m.

The sun was streaming in through the glass doors at Papa's Taverna, bouncing off the shimmering costumes of gyrating belly dancers as the sounds of Greek folk music drew the dancers to the floor. Champagne was flowing and the mouthwatering aroma of traditional Greek food was in the air as owner Ted Papageorgacopoulos presided over the busy kitchen and his wife Glynnis greeted customers, taking to the stage now and then to belt out a song.

Just a typical Saturday at Papa's Taverna? Not this one. Saturday, Jan. 19 was the closing day for Papa's, and family and friends were there to say farewell to a landmark that became a victim of the bad economy.

The location, overlooking the Petaluma River, has a panoramic vista that stretches to the western horizon. With a colorful and somewhat erratic history, the site has seen many incarnations. The dock has been in use since the 1880s, when it was known as Donahue's Landing. Today, it's known as Gilardi's Lakeville Marina, a welcome port to many sailors and kayakers. Three generations of the Gilardi family have owned and tended the land and dock, most recently Russell Gilardi, who died in 2012. His son John Gilardi is now the owner.

Prior to becoming Papa's Taverna, the restaurant was known as Gilardi's Lakeville Resort during the 1980s, run by Phyllis Lahargoue. Stories abound of her bohemian lifestyle and it's rumored that musicians like Jerry Garcia would drop in and play an impromptu set. She was also a friend of the infamous “Juanita,” a local character who ran a late-night beatnik hangout in Sausalito frequented by celebrities in the early '60s. Lahargoue eventually abandoned Gilardi's and it sat vacant for some time. But Phyllis still has a presence there — her ashes are welded into a large weather vane of a mermaid that watches over the dock.

Brothers Ted and Leo Papageorgacopoulos opened Papa's Taverna together in the early 1990s and turned it into a hub for the Greek community in the Bay Area. Then Ted left and opened Acropolis Catering with his wife Glynnis while Leo and his life partner, Lana Sutton, continued to operate the Taverna. In 2005, Leo passed away and Sutton ran it by herself for several years. In 2009, Ted and Glynnis bought the business and made extensive upgrades in the structure. They also invested in the food itself, bringing on a new chef and adjusting the menu to include even more authentic Greek dishes.

During Saturday's farewell festivities, patrons, some of whom had been coming to Papa's Taverna for 20 years, reminisced about their experiences. The family friendly atmosphere encouraged people to bring their children, said Papa's Taverna regular Judy McVey.

“Kids could play in the gazebo area, and if they got tired during the day, there were sleeping bags where they could take a nap while their parents danced.” McVey fell in love with the Greek culture in the '60s. When she found out Papa's Taverna was opening, she drove from San Francisco to Petaluma and became a part of the extended family.

“I have come here every Sunday since it opened, except when I was sick,” she says proudly. Now a Sonoma resident and about to turn 70, McVey dons her belly dance apparel and spends the afternoon on the dance floor.

Papa's offered an authentic foray into Greek music, with live bands and belly dancers.

“Music is in our soul,” declares Ted Papageorgacopoulos, who could often be found on the dance floor leading customers in a “Zorba the Greek”-like folk dance. A Greek band traveled from Los Angeles to Petaluma every weekend to play at Papa's. All types of groups performed, from country to rock and Balkan to blues, with well-known musicians sitting in now and then.

“We've have had some wonderful times here,” says Glynnis as she takes her husband's hand. Smiling, Ted agrees.

“Glynnis and I put our hearts into it and made it a place where people could come and dance, eat and relax. We always try to give more than we take.”

“Unfortunately, we bought it just as the economy really went downhill and gas prices shot up,” laments Glynnis. “People had to make choices between spending money on necessities or on entertainment.”

To meet the financial challenges, Glynnis kept her day job as a checker at Safeway and the couple continued to rely on revenue from their catering company. But there came a point at which they could no longer support the restaurant and made the decision to sell the business and all its assets.

Ted will continue the catering company, which has an established customer base. He says the company allows him the opportunity to introduce more people to authentic Greek food and hospitality.

And if you are shopping at Safeway in Petaluma, don't be surprised to hear one of the checkers burst into a joyful Greek song.

For now, the fate of that iconic building by the river remains unknown.

The couple says there are “a couple serious parties” that want to take over the lease, which could possibly include continuing to run a restaurant there. They did not disclose who those parties are.

Ted is philosophical about the impending changes.

“It's a time to start fresh,” he muses. “I believe you should leave something of yourself when you pass from here and I will always treasure the people I've met.”

(Contact Dyann Espinosa at argus@arguscourier.com.)

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