Everything that opens must close. Doors do. So do windows. Businesses, too.
But after Anthony’s Restaurant closes its doors for the last time at 10 p.m. on Sunday night, when Anthony Yiannarakis and his wife, Faye, turn the key to the lock for the final time, the City of Falls Church doesn’t just lose another restaurant. It loses its most vital, home-grown gathering spot.
Put another way: Falls Church is losing its soul.
Long before there was a Panera Bread, or a Starbucks or even a Chipotle, Falls Church residents looking for good grub, a familiar face at the door, and a place where there are never dirty looks when your kid’s meatball plops on the floor, well, Anthony’s has been about the only choice since it opened 41 years ago as a pizza and hoagie joint.
Now, Anthony’s is falling victim to one of life’s most predictable constants: progress. The bulldozers soon will be on site to demolish the very building that has arguably housed more birthday parties, more anniversaries and more after-the-soccer-game gatherings than any establishment in town. For decades, its 255 seats, some still stained with crayon markings from over-creative kids, have beckoned Falls Church residents to come sit, chat and be part of the extended family – that is, if you can find a parking spot.
If all goes as planned by late 2015, in the place of Anthony’s and the former U.S. Post Office next door will stand a sprawling, $104 million mixed-use development that will include a spiffy Harris Teeter supermarket, 288 apartments, and other assorted retailers, including – yes – a shiny, new restaurant that will not be Anthony’s. All of this developers hope will become the center of a vibrant, new downtown that attracts young, well-heeled professionals to the City. With this new town center, Falls Church stands ready to not only draw a line in the sand to nearby developers in Merrifield and Tysons, but to finally prove to beltway cynics that the Little City isn’t such a pip-squeak after all. Even before the first Silver Line train departs from East Falls Church – whooshing residents to Tysons and beyond – an ironless train called progress is barreling Falls Church into the 21st century.
But at what cost?
“We grew up with our patrons,” says Anthony, 68, in a reflective mood early one recent morning while sipping a cup of coffee in the very restaurant that he and his family built from a six-seater, take-out pizza parlor into a Falls Church institution. “I never looked at these people as paying money for a product, but as my friends who I was there to help and serve.”
Sitting next to Anthony, whose salt-and-pepper hair still shocks the room, are his wife, Faye, 58, and their daughter, Penny, 30. Faye and Penny both try – but fail – to fight back tears as they speak. Son, Ted, 34, is not in the restaurant this morning, but also has been a part of the business for years and plans to get married in July. But the joy of the upcoming wedding is marred by what can best be described as a death in the family: the closing of Anthony’s.
“It’s not easy for us,” says Faye, whose from-the-heart smile is legendary in Falls Church. “You don’t know how many tears I see from my wonderful customers. Men cry. Women cry. Kids cry,” she says, unable to continue. Her husband, Anthony, stoically rubs her back in consolation, but her tears do not stop.
Daughter Penny, whose Aphrodite-like eyes seem never to blink, looks around the empty restaurant and swallows before quietly speaking the words that her family has lived every day for decades. “People say it’s just a building,” she says, gathering just enough courage to continue speaking. “For us, it’s much more. It’s what happens within these walls. Our customers are not just customers. I grew up with them. They are our family.”
The Yiannarakis family – which also owns another Anthony’s Restaurant in Manassas, which opened in 1995 – says that it desperately wants to continue to operate an Anthony’s restaurant somewhere within the Falls Church city limits. It’s tried everything – from discussions with the site developer to discussions with City officials to negotiations with other local landlords. All to no avail. The roadblocks are too familiar: either the space is unavailable – or too expensive. But the family hasn’t quite given up hope.
“Anthony’s can still be reborn somewhere else,” vows Anthony. “We just know it can’t happen here at this particular location.”
Calls and emails to developer Rushmark Properties for this story were not returned.
Just try to find any longtime Falls Church resident who doesn’t have an Anthony’s story that warms the heart, tickles the funny bone or, at the very least, stirs memories of better times. For decades, in a city that stood like a forbidding fortress against serious developers, Anthony’s has shined like a beacon of Greek-American hope. This is the one place in town where every meal comes with a free side salad, a basket of garlic bread and the perfect aroma of newly-made suvlaki. It’s the one place where an order of baked spaghetti looks more like a family casserole. It’s the one place where every kid is welcome to make a beeline to the familiar ice cream case and pick out a frozen dessert all by themselves.
Many regulars – some who first came as kids and now come as parents – are utterly baffled where they’ll go after Sunday for a cup of coffee; a slice of pizza and an extra-large helping of heart. With all of the upcoming – if not necessary – development planned around Falls Church over the next few years, some residents are now asking themselves: how does a city heal a collective broken heart?
Silvia Koch doesn’t think it can. That’s why the local resident, who has been coming to Anthony’s for 20 years, spearheaded a so-far unsuccessful petition to keep Anthony’s somewhere within the city limits. She gathered close to 2,000 signatures. It’s not that she’s against change, she says. It’s just that so many area residents genuinely love the place. “We were thinking that the city has a duty to its citizens,” she says.
Citizens such as Kathleen Buschow. Earlier this month, she sent a hand-written note to the restaurant that compared eating at Anthony’s to “eating in your own kitchen – warm, comfortable and familiar – except you all were ‘Mom.’”
And a note from Colter Adams offering this bit of praise: “Your pizza was legendary – and it will live on as a Falls Church memory.”
Or these words from Carol Crabbe: “As you know you are my family – and will always remain in my heart.”
Then, there’s Ellen Gross – who will have a very special reason for missing Anthony’s. She’s a former school board member and board member of the Village Preservation and Improvement Society. Her family has lived in the same house in Falls Church for 37 years and has been coming to Anthony’s since they moved here. What matters most about Anthony’s, she says, is how the staff has always treated her youngest son, John, who has a developmental disability. “Relationships outside the family have mostly eluded him in life,” she says. “But at Anthony’s, John is warmly welcomed, greeted by name and treated as an adult every time we visit.” Truth be told, she says, “my husband and I have been working up the courage to tell John that Anthony’s is closing.”
Anthony says that he is taken-aback by the wave of community’s support.
“For 41 years, we loved what we did,” he says, his voice thick with emotion. “We grew together with our customers – though good times and bad. The birthdays. The Christmas parties. The 50th anniversaries. The rehearsal dinners. The weddings. The baby showers. Even the deaths,” he says, his voice uncharacteristically quiet. “Because we loved what we were doing, the people gave that back to us.”
When he first opened the restaurant on May 21, 1972, it was basically one scruffy, pizza joint replacing another. Before opening, Anthony’s father and sister spent days helping him clean and prepare. Even before he had a sign out front – or printed menus – folks started knocking at the door. “My dad said, ‘Tony, you better open up,’ so we did,” recalls Anthony, who was just 27 years old at the time.
So he did. A small pizza went for 95 cents. A steak and cheese sub was 85 cents. A cup of coffee: 10 cents.
Then, fate intervened. Four years after opening, Anthony traveled back to his native Greece to the town of Niata, where he met his wife, Faye, who was the niece of one of his employees. They married and the restaurant grew along with their family. In 1978, it expanded into the beauty salon next door when Faye was pregnant with their son, Ted. Then, in 1982, it expanded into the TV sales and repair store, when Faye was pregnant with their daughter, Penny. Finally, in the early 1990s, it expanded across the entire strip mall by taking over the space of a small grocer.
Between them, Anthony and Faye, who raised their kids in Falls Church, found themselves raising two different families at once: their children – and their restaurant. It was the restaurant that gobbled up most of their waking hours. Both work seven days a week – 12 to 14 hours per day. But their children quickly became part of the restaurant’s ambiance. “I’d come right to the restaurant after school and do my homework,” recalls Penny.
The staff became family, too, with many working there for decades. Some of the 15 employees will be placed in Anthony’s Manassas location. But some – who don’t have cars – are still looking for jobs in Falls Church. “We will do everything we can to get them jobs,” says Anthony.
Neither Anthony nor Faye are good at sitting down. Last Friday night, even when Falls Church News-Press editor Nick Benton valiantly tried to celebrate the City’s hardest-working couple at a party he hosted in their honor in Anthony’s familiar back room, the two were busily setting tables, serving food and busing dishes. Neither ever sat down to eat.
Even then, there were some rough patches through the years.
Many times, staff would phone in sick or face family emergencies. That’s when Faye and Anthony always stepped in, recalls Penny. “My parents never panic,” she says, as her 13-month-old son, Michael, ducks under a table wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the appropriate logo: Boss-in-training. Her husband, Pete, picks him up and lifts him onto his shoulders. “Because my folks know everything about the business, they’d fill in for whoever didn’t show up.”
Then, there were some really crazy days.
Like in 1977, when the store was robbed at gunpoint. Or a few kitchen fires that sent the fire department racing to the location. And the recent recession strangled business which plummeted 30% – and employee hours had to be trimmed back. During the brunt of it, Tony and Faye refinanced their own home just outside the city limits to keep the restaurant afloat. “I knew we could make it if we just got through these tough times,” says Anthony.
Of course, they did make it. As business roared back, they even had big plans to renovate the place. Things looked good. And then, well, progress intervened.
City officials have mostly been hands off. “We’ve made it clear that we’d like to see Anthony’s stay in the city,” says Mayor Nader Baroukh, whose favorite breakfast at Anthony’s is two eggs over medium, toast and coffee with cream. “But in my view, it’s a private transaction. The city can’t be in the position of trying to subsidize or get in the middle of these private discussions.”
City Manager Wyatt Shield says he wishes he could do more. After all, he notes, Anthony’s is one of those special places where “you will always see a friend when you come in.” The City’s Economic Development Office has worked with Anthony’s for possible relocation, he says. But, he notes, “we need to be mindful of the fact the decisions between a landlord and business owner are not public decisions,” he says. And while the city has tried to help Anthony’s find a spot to relocate within the city limits, he says, those efforts have “so far been unsuccessful.”
Which means, if Anthony’s has any hope of continuing its legacy in Falls Church, fate may need to step in once more.
“We pray, and so do our customers – our family,” says Faye, momentarily looking up at the ceiling of the restaurant that’s become like an unofficial church for folks hungry for good food, good prices and good company.
A few weeks ago, on the restaurant’s 41st anniversary, the owners did something they’d never done before: nothing. Every year prior, they’d hosted special anniversary celebrations with cake and beverages and cheer. “There was nothing to celebrate this year,” says Anthony. “No one had the heart.”
The hard lesson learned: Don’t just own a restaurant – own the land under it, too, says Anthony.
Now, Anthony’s, the restaurant that’s been a second home and gathering spot to thousands of Falls Church residents for more than four decades, is within hours of becoming a marinara-coated piece of the city’s folklore. A memory you can almost taste.
Everything that opens must close.
Alas, even Anthony’s.