St. Louis Standards is a weekly column dedicated to the people, places and dishes that make our food scene what it is.
In 1979, Michael Malliotakis, an immigrant from the Greek island of Rhodes, sat down with his then-wife’s dad and struck a deal. Diagnosed with cancer just a year after he took over the bar himself, Malliotakis’ father-in-law needed him to buy him out. The bar, a raucous neighborhood tavern called Nick’s Little Pebble, wasn’t necessarily the sort of place Malliotakis wanted to run, but he could sense this was an opportunity he needed to accept.
“It was a rough place,” recalls Katina Malliotakis, Michael’s daughter and the current proprietor of Michael’s Bar & Grill. “It was a Cracker Jack box of a place, really small with pool tables — a typical Maplewood neighborhood bar, and a really rough place. Like every Greek who comes to America, he had a dream of opening a restaurant, and eventually, he got tired of the ruckus, shut down, dug out the basement with his bare hands and the help of some guys in the neighborhood, and reopened as a restaurant.”
Four decades later, Michael’s Bar & Grill has become a mainstay of the city’s dining scene, beloved for its ability to execute both classic American comfort food and traditional Greek cuisine. As Katina Malliotakis describes it, Michael’s is the sort of place that will serve kids the best grilled cheese they’ve ever had as their parents enjoy a gorgeous rack of lamb. Known as much for its burgers and wings as it is its Greek salads and moussaka, Malliotakis credits the restaurant’s staying power to its ability to offer a little bit of something for everyone, a way of dining she believes is waning in the current restaurant climate.
Considering his culinary pedigree, there’s no way that the elder Malliotakis could have done things any other way. The son of a butcher, Michael loved his mother’s cooking and taught himself how to prepare her dishes. Though he had no professional experience, he snuck his way into the Greek army’s food service at the age of nineteen, telling his superiors that he was a chef so that he could make sure everyone ate good on his watch.
“When they asked if anyone was a chef, he raised his hand,” his daughter says. “He said he wanted to make sure he had the food situation covered. He also told them he was a tailor so he could handle the washing. He was determined to have good food and crisp, clean clothes.”
After leaving the army, Michael was introduced to Katina’s mother, who had come back to Greece for their arranged marriage. The two moved together to St. Louis, where Michael was immediately thrust into the restaurant business and realized he had a knack for the industry. He was a keen observer, picking up on what business owners did right and what they did wrong, and banking that knowledge in the hopes that he would one day have a place of his own. One of his most formative jobs was at the iconic cafeteria Garavelli’s, where he was taken under the wing of the owners and taught everything from how to carve meat to how to run the business.
Eventually, Michael Malliotakis took the leap and opened his own cafeteria-style restaurant in downtown St. Louis, then another concept on Cherokee Street. However, it was Michael’s Bar & Grill where he really staked his claim. Though he reopened as a restaurant with only a few menu items written on a small chalkboard, he found immediate success and kept building upon it. It didn’t take long for more items to appear on the menu, which was finally printed after a short while, followed by an expansion of the physical space to accommodate the legions of regular diners who flocked to the taverna for a taste of his excellent cooking.
Katina Malliotakis has been by her dad’s side through it all, understanding that it was her duty to carry out the restaurant’s legacy as Michael’s right-hand woman — even before she was old enough to truly know what that entailed.
“I was about twelve years old when he called me up and said he was sending a cab for me and needed me to get down to the restaurant because he needed my help,” she recalls. “I showed up that day and never left. He even bought the house two doors down from the restaurant, and we moved in. I call this place the Hotel California, because no one ever leaves.”
Though Malliotakis describes her fate as being sealed that day she walked into the restaurant, she wouldn’t have it any other way. She admits she frequently questioned whether or not it was what she wanted for her professional life, and even tried to venture away from the industry a couple times to try out a different career. However, all of her other endeavors were short-lived, because she knew, deep in her heart, that hospitality was her calling.
Malliotakis also felt a responsibility to be there for her dad and knew there was no one else who could be his go-to like she could. That reality filled her with a sense of duty that has been especially salient since 2008, when Michael suffered his first stroke and had to hand over some of the day-to-day operations to her. Since then, she’s been steering the ship — with her dad’s guidance, of course — and has done her best to make sure the restaurant keeps going, even in the midst of the challenges the pandemic has created over the past year and a half.
“There was no way that, after 40 years, we were going out like that,” Malliotakis says. “This is about his legacy, and I need to make sure it succeeds. The people who come in here and have supported us through this all are family and friends, and I couldn’t imagine not being here.”
In her mind, that’s the key — the guests who come through its doors every day, some of them since the very beginning, who are willing to support Michael’s because they know they will consistently get a good meal prepared by owners who pour their hearts and souls into everything they do.
“I’ve always appreciated everyone who comes through the door, but I had no idea that they felt that way about us, too,” Malliotakis says. “People have been so supportive and thank us for being here. I tell them, ‘No, thank you.’ It’s great they feel the same way I do and that they are just as grateful. There’s nothing better than seeing people eating and drinking and having a good time. We’re Greek. The only way we know how to show our love is by feeding you.”
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