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Panos' Calls It Quits, Pasta Fills In
By Anne Gates
A Noe Valley favorite will be closing the kitchen after nearly 20 years on 24th Street. The owners of Panos' Restaurant at 24th and Noe announced last month that their dining establishment would be going out of business in mid-October.
Fans of Panos' classic and nouvelle Greek cuisine can order their favorite dishes until about Oct. 15, likely to be the final day of operation. An Italian restaurant, Pasta Pomodoro, will be moving in around the first of November.
Back in the late '70s, Panos' founder John Gianaras was living in Noe Valley on Jersey Street. John owned a restaurant in the South of Market area called Coliseum II, but he lamented the dearth of Greek restaurants in Noe Valley. When a grocery store vacated its corner storefront at 4000 24th St., John acquired the space. In 1978 he launched Panos', named after his father, Panos Gianaras (Panos is the Greek word for Peter).
John's wife Vi Gianaras took charge of the restaurant operation at Panos' in 1984. Three years later, she assumed the role of chef and started creating many of the salad, pasta, and seafood dishes still in demand today.
Vi says running a successful restaurant can be extremely time-consuming, and it's been especially demanding over the past decade. Now she would like to focus on her family and a part-time real estate career. "Closing the restaurant is my personal decision," Vi says, "a decision for myself and my whole family."
John and Vi Gianaras have two daughters, Kristen, 11, and Kathryn, 9. The couple also both put in stints as president of the Noe Valley Merchants Association during the 1980s.
Panos' Restaurant went through a major renovation some 10 years ago. The Gianarases expanded into the space formerly occupied by Mike's Barber Shop (now on Church Street). Today Panos' has an airy but warm Mediterranean feel, with an open kitchen, white tablecloths, and dramatic vases of flowers.
The menu has evolved as well. A couple of years ago, Vi took off the tablecloths and introduced a trendier, seasonal menu, but the customers preferred the elegant atmosphere and the Greek-inspired and traditional Greek dishes that had become Panos' trademark. "[Panos'] has re-invented itself in a variety of ways over the years," says Vi, "but it's always been Greek."
And it has always been popular. Says Vi, "My customers have been wonderful, very loyal, very appreciative. They've been necessary in maintaining my energy."
To bid Panos' farewell, Vi said the restaurant would probably hold a private dinner and an invitation-only party for past and present employees. But she would also like to publish some of her much-requested, previously secret recipes. "It's a nice way for us to thank everyone for their patronage," she says. Her recipe for Athenian Pasta is printed here (see sidebar).
Soon after Panos' closes, Pasta Pomo-doro will take over the space. This Italian restaurant is part of a small privately-owned chain, and the Noe Valley location will be its seventh in San Francisco (other locations include 2027 Chestnut St., 2304 Market St., and 655 Union St.). Pasta Pomodoro also has a site in Rockridge.
Vi Gianaras is happy about Pasta Pomodoro's arrival. "They have a great product at an incredible price," she says. "I feel very comfortable that [Pasta Pomodoro] can do a great job. They have a really talented owner/chef."
Not everyone is excited about a chain restaurant in Noe Valley, however. Friends of Noe Valley board member and newsletter author Harry Stern comments, "Pasta Pomodoro may have the world's greatest pasta, but I'd like to see the neighborhood have locally owned neighborhood businesses."
Stern recognizes that Pasta Pomodoro is different from a Burger King or similar "big chain," but he fears that the arrival of each chain business erodes the individual character of the neighborhood a little bit more. He adds, "You've got to make distinctions about chains, and be selective in how you view them." He notes that banks, for example, are obviously chains, but the neighborhood needs them. Chain shops and restaurants, he says, are a somewhat different story.
Noe Valley does have an 18-month moratorium on new food establishments on 24th Street, but the ban does not affect Pasta Pomodoro because it is replacing a restaurant. There is no ban on chain stores or chain restaurants in Noe Valley, and land use attorney (and Noe Valley resident) Claire Pilcher says that such a broad ban would be impossible. Pilcher also notes that there is no legal requirement for any kind of notice in a commercial situation. "The neighborhood is kept in the dark until it's a fait accompli," she says.
"I'm disappointed for two reasons," Pilcher adds, "one, Panos' is leaving, and two, we're not getting an individual, unique restaurant in its place." She continues, "I'm concerned about the new restaurant's impact on other restaurants, such as Little Italy." Little Italy is one of several Italian restaurants in Noe Valley. "It's too bad for 24th Street -- we want to maintain some variety," Pilcher concludes.
Burton Heiss, district manager for Pasta Pomodoro, says he understands the antichain feeling. But he responds, "We're not cookie-cutter. All our stores are unique. We started here in San Francisco, and our operations are here. We tend to be a good fit in the neighborhoods. We haven't been perceived as a chain once we've opened."
The Pasta Pomodoro restaurants are full-service, casual in style, and offer a mostly pasta menu with some other daily specials such as a grilled fish, for dine-in or take-out. "It's exceptional quality pasta, and it's an energetic and fun atmosphere," says Heiss. Pasta Pomodoro plans to open its Noe Valley restaurant on Nov. 1, after minor renovations.
John and Vi Gianaras, who've lived and worked in Noe Valley for many years, say they plan to keep their ties to the neighborhood, but this month may be your last chance to order the grilled lamb or gyro platter at Panos'.
Panos' does not take reservations. However, the restaurant is open for lunch (Mon. Fri., 11:30 2:30), brunch (Sat. and Sun., 10 2:30), and dinner (Mon. Sat., 5:30 10; Sun., 5 9:30).
Panos' Restaurant Chef
4 cups penne pasta, cooked al dente
(2 cups dry pasta)
3 slices (1/2-inch thick) eggplant, sliced into sticks
1 roasted red pepper, julienned
1/2 cup Kalamata olives, pitted
1 fresh tomato, diced
2 teaspoons garlic, finely chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup white wine
Juice from 1/2 lemon
2 dashes Tabasco
1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat olive oil in a sauté pan until hot. Add eggplant sticks. Brown eggplant on all sides. Add garlic and sauté lightly. Add all other ingredients except cheese. Sauté slightly. Season sauté liberally, and toss with cooked pasta. Transfer to serving dishes and garnish with feta cheese. Serves 2.