When Pam Hatzistamoulos of Best Steak House catches sight of me and my notebook, she says there are only two things I need to know: Best Steak House on the corner of University Avenue and Victoria really is the best. And? “These guys are crazy.”
“These guys” are Mike, who Pam married 20 years ago, and his brother Steve, who’s been married twice “and hated every minute of it.” Mike and Pam’s daughter Dimitria works the cash register, while Mike and Steve’s mother, also Dimitria, shuttles back and forth handling bits of everyday business.
All of them Hazistamoulos, all of them utterly devoted to the family affair of running this restaurant.
The patriarch George started the business in 1974 on West Seventh Street inside of Sibley Plaza strip mall. George emigrated from the Greek island of Samos, where the family still has a home, and after only a couple of years of working at a Best Steak House he realized he wanted his own. He was a very smart, strong, hardworking man, and he got one. The rest is history.
It’s 90 degrees with high humidity in St. Paul and you can feel every bit of it inside the restaurant. The brothers take turns in front of the constantly in-use grill. They’re in Mediterranean blue shirts (the whole restaurant is in Mediterranean blue) with gas-station-style name patches on the breast. Of course, they can’t sit with me in tandem, or the steaks don’t get grilled. And the steaks are always getting grilled, between 300 and 500 of them daily.
Who’s the better cook?
“I am, of course,” says each, out of earshot of the other. They’ve clearly been asked before.
Neither man has ever thought of a life outside of the business. George worked at Best Steak until his dying day. He was just shy of 85 years old. Steve would like to do it “a little bit” differently than that, maybe spend a “little bit” more time in Greece, but Mike says, “I want a hearse to drive me out of here.”
Mike remembers a day similar to this one when he was 13 years old. It was very hot, very humid. His dad told him to go and rest, cool down in the cooler. He said no.
“I’m going to stand right here and learn how to grill these steaks, because this is what I’m going to do when I grow up!” He’s spent every day of his life doing just that. He’s 55 now.
What does he like so much about grilling steaks?
“They just look so juicy and pretty. I like the way they come out.” He can grill 50 steaks at a time with his eyes closed. And yes, both men eat a steak every single day. They don’t have a favorite. They’re all good.
The food is huge, tasty, and affordable. It’s workaday food, the $18.25 T-bone hanging over the plate in its prodigiousness. Complete your meal with an iceberg lettuce salad with your choice of ranch, blue cheese, or French, plus a baked potato with a big blob of butter (add a pack of sour cream for 40 cents), and two slabs of Texas Toast with yet more butter. You grab a tray, glide it down the rail, tell the guys what you want and how you want it. The chef chat is free.
That T-Bone is the most expensive meal on the menu; the steak with four jumbo deep-fried shrimp goes for $17.25. A shrimp dinner is $10.50. The gyro is legendary, but I didn’t get that far because I hadn’t been this full since Thanksgiving.
The brothers smile when I say so. George always implored them to “think of the customers and make sure they always, always leave full and happy.”
In a scandalized tone, Mike tells me how he went to some high-buck place that charged him $50 for a tiny steak and three asparagus spears. “I was still hungry and had to stop off for a burger on the way home!”
Not so at Best Steak. Nobody leaves hungry. This decree is what lures in their legion fans, and with at least 300 visitors a day, there is no such thing as down time.
“Other restaurants around here are dead between 3 and 5 but not here,” says Mike, pointing at the door where a line is steadily forming. It seems like everybody is on a first-name basis, and everybody stops by to nudge one of the brothers on the shoulder. Usually, there’s no need to ask what anyone is having. They already know. Eighty percent of the customers are regulars.
Any particularly special memories?
“Every day is a special memory,” quoth Mike.
Anything bad ever happen here?
“No. The hardest part of my day is that the freeway is busy on my way in.”
Astoundingly, they’ve never had a single problem in three decades (they just celebrated their 30th anniversary at the University Avenue location) aside from the occasional “harsh words.”
In fact, Steve sometimes longs for the old days when University Avenue was a little livelier. “There were drugs, prostitutes, and crime! It’s not any fun anymore,” he half-jokes.
But nobody comes to Best Steak House to make trouble.
“Everybody comes in here,” Mike leans in to tell me. “People from the Capitol. The cops over there. A little gang over here. And everybody gets along! Everybody is family here, okay?”
Eighteen-dollar dinner plate-sized steaks are the great equalizer.
Matriarch Dimitria still does daily work at the restaurant. She’s “Mama” to most, making plenty of sojourns around to the front of the counter to dole out and receive hugs. She trundles over to drop the change of two dimes on our table after our purchase of two packs of sour cream.
But the boys are not to divulge her age, “Or she’d shoot us both.”
The whole family just returned from their annual vacation to Samos. They spend a month every year, shuttering the restaurant and letting it get the deep clean and repairs that the other 335 days of the year command. As much as they love going home, sometimes they’re sad to leave the restaurant. The neighborhood notices, and longs for them when they’re away.
But Steve seems to pine for Greece the most.
“I miss the nightclubs, sitting on the beach with my alcohol. The mini-skirts, the lipstick, the high heels!” He’s a relentless flirt.
“Watch out for that guy!” Pam calls out from behind the register.
But his eye isn’t on me; it’s constantly, consistently on the grill. I can tell he’s anxious to get back there. I release him to his duty and lifelong pleasure. The lines of customers and his family are ready and waiting for his attentions. It’s only 4 p.m., but the dinner rush starts early here.
I thank both men for their time, and walk out with a silent wish for them both.
For Mike, endless years behind the grill.
For Steve, mini-skirts and the beach. And endless years behind the grill.
Best Steak House
860 University Ave. W., St. Paul