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The very last dance at Papa's Taverna

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.

Celebrating Papa's Taverna

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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.


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