To say there were a lot of excited people at Pastori's Restaurant in Ellington on Wednesday night would be an understatement.
It's been a fixture – make that a town landmark – for three decades; 25 years with the Savvidis family. Wednesday, it was the only place to be – that is, if you weren't glued to your own TV watching Food Network's Restaurant: Impossible at home. The patio, bar and dining room were filled with customers and well-wishers waiting to see put Ellington on the map.
Just as the show's intro came on, cheers erupted in the crowd.
“To see my customers stand up and applaud – how nice was that?” said owner Billy Savvidis. Cheers continued throughout, including early in the show when Robert Irvine said, “I'm going to do whatever I can to save Pastori's Restaurant.”
For many in attendance for the show's premiere, it was a chance to support a family and business well-known in the community. When Judy Schelkun and David Steffan moved to Ellington a year-and-a-half ago from Wisconsin, Pastori's was their first real encounter with the town.
“The day we moved into Deer Valley, we had no food,” said Schelkun. “We went to Big Y to pick up the necessities. We passed Pastori's and I said, 'let's just go eat dinner there.'”
“This was the very first place we came and we've been coming here ever since,” added Steffan, who said he and Schelkun consider themselves regular customers and count Billy and Georgia as friends.
The Restaurant: Impossible journey began with a snowy night in January, when Georgia Savvidis was snowed in and stayed at the restaurant overnight. She saw the show on Food Network, starring celebrity chef Robert Irvine. With two days and $10,000, Restaurant: Impossible makes over struggling restaurants, particularly in the areas of décor and menu choices.
In the case of Pastori's, the establishment offered a 400-item menu and was losing $8,000 a month in revenue. There was added friction within the family, particularly between Billy and his son, Steve, who was a Pastori's chef. The two were often at odds over restaurant responsibilities and Steve admits he was fired at least 30 times and had quit dozens of times.
Savvidis decided to apply. Working on the lengthy application for a few weeks, she finally submitted it and received a notification saying a decision would be made in a few months.
A few days later, in February, Restaurant: Impossible came calling. They wanted to interview Georgia, Billy and some of the employees. Georgia didn't think much would come of it, so she didn't tell anyone about the impending interview. Instead, she Tivo'd the show and told Billy to watch it. He watched, but didn't take it seriously. Georgia told him to watch it again. When Billy asked why, she told him they were coming to Pastori's.
After interviewing Billy, Georgia and their children, customers and employees, the Savvidis' were told they would again be notified in a few months if the restaurant had been chosen. In March, the call came that Restaurant: Impossible would be coming to Ellington in May.
Then it was time to tell the staff.
“We took the news fairly well,” said Svetlana Grishtaev, an eight-year employee at Pastori's. “We were excited, but apprehensive about people intruding on our space, and would Billy take criticism well?”
The staff filled out a two-page questionnaire with questions ranging from the Pastori's brand in the community to their likes and dislikes. There was even a question asking who they respected and didn't respect.
On May 17, the show's crew took over the bar for their equipment, production and staging area.
When Robert Irvine came on May 18, they taped a “lunch wave.” Construction began at 2 p.m. on Wednesday and lasted until 6 p.m. on Thursday. No one in the family was allowed to see the transformation until the reveal on Thursday night.
Peter Desmond of Vernon, his wife Darcy, and his sister Sara Zitka of Ellington, helped transform Pastori's by helping lay the flooring and move furniture.
“I got out of work at 6 p.m. (on May 18) and I called Georgia and asked if they needed help. She said not until 10 p.m,” Desmond said. “I usually go to work at 5 a.m. We worked until about one in the morning. It was pouring out and we were running furniture out to a trailer in the back.”
Zitka even came back to help on May 19 – in the final hours before the big reveal.
“It was a very busy day – whatever I could do, I offered to do,” she said. “It was a great experience and a lot of fun.”
While construction took place, Irvine and Chef Lee, a featured chef on the show, worked on the menu with the kitchen staff. Among the staff was Brendan Lally, a cook who has been at Pastori's for a year-and-a-half.
“We had two high-level chefs here, so I took in as much information as I could,” said Lally, who has spent most of his life in Ellington, and called participating in the show a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
With the guidance of Irvine and Chef Lee, Pastori's now has a fresh, streamlined menu, which includes entrees such as tuna steak, pan seared scrod, a Tuscan burger and veal bolognese, and new appetizers including tuna sliders and little neck steamers, to name a few. Gone are the six pages of choices, often confusing customers, who would find themselves reaching for their old standby meal.
“It was overwhelming – too much to pick from,” admitted Gae Tate, longtime Pastori's patron and Ellington native. “I always ended up ordering the same thing, because there was way too much on the menu.”
Eighty percent of the menu came from recommendations from the show, however Pastori's kept the mainstay pizza and grinders on the menu. Something new long-time visitors of the restaurant will notice – you no longer seat yourself. Pastori's now has a hostess to seat you.
On the night of the restaurant reveal and taping, Tate and her husband Bob were among the lucky ones to snag a table. When she saw the transformation, she said it gave her chills.
“It was amazing,” she said. “It was clean and crisp. It was hard to imagine what it was going to look like, but it fits perfectly with the town of Ellington. The designer did a good job.”
That night, while Tate dined on steak, her husband, who loves calamari and has it everywhere he goes, had the Pastori's calamari.
“He said it was the best he's ever had,” said Tate.
When it came to the reveal for the Savvidis family, the experience was wrought with emotion – everyone was in tears – even Robert Irvine. Bartender Eric Tenney had a unique experience watching the reveal in the bar area, where he was preparing drinks.
“They let the family in and Marc Summers (the show's producer) started calling camera shots fast and furious to catch the emotion,” Tenney said. “He's calling camera shot after camera shot and the family is crying and hugging and Marc Summers is literally barking orders. Then he said, 'are you seeing what I'm seeing? Is Robert Irvine tearing up? He never cries – stay on him!'”
For Lally, the show taught him more than just cooking a mean dish that patrons love.
“I learned more about life than I did about cooking in those few days,” he said. “I learned to take pride in things, not just do it to do it. The show taught me at any level you can do something and do your best at it, whether it's a cook or a dishwasher. Enjoy what you do – put your all into it.”
And the family dynamic is back in balance – Steve is back at the restaurant and splitting kitchen duties with his father.
“We needed to grow and learn,” said Steve. “We've got to work together and move forward. Tomorrow's another day.”
“Were we dying? No,” said Billy Savvidis, who said the restaurant wasn't really in danger of closing in six months. “In the show, they made it look like we were dying. We were a good place, but they made us great. We were stagnant and we're not stagnant anymore.”
“I'm glad we were able to put Ellington on national TV for something good,” said Georgia Savvidis. “If we fail in a year, we've learned that family is more important. We'll go on to bigger and better ventures.”
The show, expected to be one of the highest rated episodes of Restaurant: Impossible ever, will run again at 9 p.m. on August 31 on the Food Network.
The Savvidis family would like to thank the Pastori's employees, their extended family, Ken Boynton Construction in Vernon, Dalene Flooring, Timber Ridge Landscaping in Ellington and the customers who helped make the project a reality.