By Jeff Gottlieb
January 29, 2010
Plates break, a dish of saganaki is set on fire. A tap dancer in a baggy suit stomps in front of a self-portrait of Anthony Quinn as Zorba the Greek.
For decades, Papadakis Taverna has been the best-known attraction in San Pedro, not just for its food and atmosphere, but as an out-of-the-way place where celebrities such as Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Tom Hanks and Paula Abdul gathered. It's where Pete Carroll, then-coach of the owner's beloved USC Trojans, would close the deal with high school recruits. It was where Natalie Wood ate the night before she drowned off Santa Catalina in 1981.
How many restaurants show up as answers on "Jeopardy"?
But after 37 years of Greek dancing and plate-smashing, John Papadakis is closing the restaurant Sunday. In a place where people come to watch him as much as they come for the spanakopita and moussaka, "Sometimes I get tired of playing me," he said.
"He's burned out," said his daughter Angeliki, a lawyer in San Francisco who still waitresses when she visits. "It's like throwing a big party every night. It's hard to do."
Papadakis Taverna hearkens to the days before chain restaurants, when a dinner house was a reflection of its owner's personality, a place where you always got a table if the owner liked you.
Papadakis, 60, has always been more than a restaurant owner, someone who in conversation may quote Homer, Henry Miller or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Papadakis is a longtime San Pedro booster. He was chairman of the Los Angeles Harbor-Watts Economic Development Corp., a public-private partnership to bring development to the area, and dreams of remaking the San Pedro waterfront into a tourist-friendly commercial district with an eight-mile pedestrian promenade. The plan is coming along slowly, though, and he remains on a quest to find federal money for the project.
"He is a commanding figure," said David Freeman, former president of the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners, who hasn't always agreed with Papadakis. "I guess Gen. Patton comes to mind."
The Papadakises have been important figures in San Pedro for three generations. John Papadakis' Greek immigrant grandfather started as a bootlegger, owned a hotel and restaurants. His father owned a chain of liquor stores and was a behind-the-scenes political player who helped run congressional and Assembly campaigns. His mother, who wrote jokes for Bob Hope and Phyllis Diller, was a member of the county and state boards of education and the Little Hoover Commission.
Papadakis was a starting linebacker at USC, where he had the highest grade-point average on the team. "I couldn't wait to show people what I could do, whether on the football field or in a restaurant," Papadakis said.
Teammate Sam Cunningham, who played in the NFL, called Papadakis the toughest player he faced. "He used to beat the crap out of me in practice," Cunningham said.
Papadakis still has the size of a linebacker, with a full head of gray hair and fingers the size of sausages. On his right hand he wears a silver ring with diamonds on it from USC's 2005 national championship. On the left, he wears a USC ring with four rubies, for the four Rose Bowls the team played in while he was there.
"How do you define John Papadakis without mentioning USC in the same sentence?" asked Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, a frequent racquetball partner.
About six years ago, Trutanich commissioned a painting that sits above the restaurant's kitchen door. It shows Papadakis and sons Petros, the sports radio show host, and Taso, who all played for USC, in their cardinal-and-gold uniforms.
Papadakis played in one of the most famous college football games ever, when the Trojans traveled to Birmingham in 1971 to play an all-white Alabama squad. USC won, 42-21, and the game is credited with helping spur the integration of Alabama's team.
Papadakis was co-author of a book about the game, "Turning of the Tide," which has been optioned for a movie.
In 1973, a couple of years after leaving USC, he opened Papadakis Taverna with a $16,000 investment in a building his grandfather had bought 52 years earlier. His wife made the curtains. The couple cooked and did most of the work. His brother Tom soon joined them.
San Pedro was a tough town, filled with rough-hewn longshoremen and cargo ship crews. Next door to Papadakis was a bordello.
"The neighborhood was a filthy, tough place, but the only place I could afford," Papadakis said. "Tommy and I really had to tame the area."
Sometimes that meant resorting to their fists. Other times a saute pan became a weapon.
One time, he said, a gang member walked in and in less-than-polite terms said he wanted to use the restroom. Papadakis told him it was for customers only. The intruder pulled a knife. A waiter pulled a gun. The gang member left.
Perhaps the most outrageous character was LAPD motorcycle Officer Tony Malley. Dressed in full uniform, he would ride his Harley into the restaurant and up and down the aisles. Then he would lead a Greek folk dance, tossing his helmet into the crowd.
"Brother John encouraged Tony to shoot his gun through the tin ceiling," Tom Papadakis wrote in a manuscript that recounts some of the characters who frequented the restaurant.
Eventually, the restaurant became an important recruiting tool for USC during the Pete Carroll years. Heisman trophy winners Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush committed to play for the Trojans while eating at Papadakis.
A reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2005 called the restaurant the Trojans' "secret weapon." But his description of John Papadakis making impassioned speeches to the high school seniors led USC to investigate. But the university found no recruiting violations.
Papadakis downplays the investigation and said what he did was no different from what he does every night. With the music and dancing, some of the high school players got so excited they would try to make their USC commitment to Papadakis.
Papadakis won't be retiring after the restaurant closes Sunday. He and his brother will be running their real estate investments from an office down the street, and he'll be trying to convince people how important it is to rebuild the harbor.
When he talks about the restaurant's closing, he recalls a Greek waiter named Stelios who worked for him.
"He used to say, 'Once upon a time there was a place called Papadakis Taverna.' " The booming voice of the big man trails off.
Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times