Darvick-Leo'sBoston had Cheers. Detroit and environs has Leo’s Coney Island, a restaurant chain whose Greek salads cannot be beat. Not in New York. Not in Chicago. Not in LA.

Not nowhere, not no how.

It’s not just the food of course. Leo’s is the place where you watch the kids you drove to soccer practice become waitstaff and then young adults who come home on break and nab their favorite booth with their high school friends to catch up. Leo’s is where you see friends you haven’t seen in years, or since last week. Sometimes you see a local celebrity — Mitch Albom or a sports star (shows you my bent; I spot the authors, not the hoopsters.)

Elizabeth knows our orders the minute she sees us.

Elizabeth knows our orders the minute she sees us.

Nothing changes at Leo’s and that’s what makes it so good. You know the waitresses by name; they know exactly how you want your salad; you can count on the buzz of conversation around you and the intermittent cries of “OH-pa” and the nearby flash of warmth that ISN’T menopausal as another order of saganaki cheese goes up in momentary flames.

Yet within that sameness, you are keenly aware of the passing of time. I see fellow synagogue members with whom I’ve worshiped for years. Folks get heavier, older, wait to be seated while holding on to a walker or their younger daughter’s arm. Or holding in their arms a new grandchild. The three-generation tables are the ones that always make me smile. In come the guys putting up orange traffic cones for the latest road renovation and the plaid-skirted girls from the Catholic school a mile over.

Last week, my daughter Emma and I were there for one last Leo’s lunch before her flight back to the BIg Apple from the Big D.  We have been “lunching at Leo’s” for going on 16 years. At least.

After we placed our orders—two small Greeks, extra peppers (her), hold the peppers (me), grilled whole wheat pitas for us both—in walked a mom I carpooled with when our girls were in nursery school. I knew her right away. She didn’t recognize Emma any more than I recognized her daughter, but it was great to catch up for a moment. Was she also thinking of the day our girls played beauty parlor and Emma came home missing the middle part of her bangs? One week, I bumped into one of Emma’s grammar school friends who was there with her mom. I had a momentary pang of envy upon learning she had graduated from nursing school and has returned to the Detroit area. She lives a ten minute walk from our house. If only….

Leo’s is a classic American success story and maybe that’s what I love as well. Brothers Peter and Leo Stassinopoulos arrived in the 1960’s determined to make the American dream their own. Family recipes in tow plus heaping helpings of hard work and determination. Forty-one years and forty-nine restaurants later Leo’s Coney Island isn’t just a restaurant chain, or the place where everybody knows your name. Leo’s is an institution. Our institution.  Meet you there for a Greek salad any day. 

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