Behind the Late-Night Shift at Denver’s Last 24-Hour Diner
Liz Contos met her husband Pete at a Greek Orthodox church on the corner of Denver’s Sixth and Pennsylvania streets in the 1950s. After he saw her for the first time, Pete told a friend that one day she would be his wife. He was right.
In 1959, the year Liz graduated from East High School, the two married and, within a few years, purchased the first of many restaurants the couple would own and operate over the next five decades in Denver: the Satire Lounge on East Colfax. “We did everything together,” says Liz, who is now 81.
After getting off work late from the Satire Lounge, the Contos would meet their friends (who also worked late shifts) at the neighboring restaurant, which had been run as a diner since 1930. When the diner was put on the market in 1981, the couple jumped at the opportunity to purchase a second business—and Pete’s Kitchen was born.
Since then, Liz and Pete worked to ensure the diner was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “We worked night shifts because, well, there are people that worked night shifts, and they would have no place to go eat,” Liz says. The overnight shift at Pete’s Kitchen would come to be known as the graveyard shift.
In May 2019, Pete passed away at age 85, and the iconic Denver restaurateur left behind a legacy of Greek food, flare, and late-night eats at six different businesses across the city: the Satire Lounge, Pete’s Kitchen, Greek Town Cafe, Pete’s Central One, University Park Cafe, and Pete’s Gyro Place. At the end of 2019, in the span of five months, Pete’s Gyro Place and the Greek Town Cafe shuttered. In spring 2020, still in the throes of grief, Liz braced for the COVID-19 pandemic solo without the husband’s leadership, and the doors of Pete’s Kitchen swiftly closed.
“When [Pete] went, there was nobody really stepping up to steer the ship here,” says Alex Barakos, the Contos’ grandson. Before the pandemic, Barakos spent his summers taking orders at the Greek Town Cafe then heading over to Pete’s Kitchen to cook his favorite overnight shift. “It is such a special shift,” he says. “It could be a random Tuesday at 2:30 a.m. and the diner will fill up because of a concert down the street. The spontaneity of it is the coolest thing. Anyone can come in.” The now 24-year-old moved from Arizona to Colorado two weeks before his graduation from Northern Arizona State University, where he studied hotel and restaurant management, to help save his family’s businesses.
“I’d been waiting for this moment,” he says. “My goal was to make sure that we were going to make it.” Upon arrival in Denver, Barakos moved in with his grandmother and got to work. After a one-month hiatus, Pete’s reopened in April 2020 with limited hours.
To keep Pete’s Kitchen afloat, Barakos signed the iconic diner up on the mobile food service app DoorDash. “Thank God for Alex,” Liz says. “He just jumped in with both feet.” In July 2021, when mask requirements were relaxed, Barakos reinstated Pete’s Kitchen graveyard shift to two days a week: Friday and Saturday, when those in the service industry are working at their late-night shifts.
Customers can enjoy crispy fries, smothered pork chops, and giant gyro sandwiches any time of day or night, but the graveyard shift means more to Barakos than convenience for his customers. He recalls whipping up breakfast burritos in two minutes for a group during the shift a few summers back, before Pete passed away. When he turned around to take another order, he saw his grandfather nodding and smiling on a stool behind him. Pete was pleased that his grandson had learned how to cook so efficiently during the chaotic hours.
“At that moment, I was like, ‘OK, he’s proud,’ ” Barakos recalls. “But now, I think he would say, ‘Hey, you’ve still got some work to do.’ ”
Pete’s Kitchen is not yet back to being open 24/7, but Barakos hopes to reinstate the hours once the difficulties of the pandemic let up. Eventually, Barakos hopes to reach the same ambitious goal his grandfather had nearly 60 years ago: to open multiple restaurants in Denver.
“I am happy, but I am not satisfied,” Barakos says. “Within three to five years, I would love to be back open 24/7 at Pete’s Kitchen. Maybe someday, it will be Al’s Kitchen, who knows.”
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