– BY DANIEL JONES –
In 1952, Chicago native Joe Mencarini leased The Fan Grille, then a hole-in-the-wall bar at 205 N. Shields Ave. in Richmond. Taking the name of the Carytown bar he owned during World War II, he renamed it Joe’s Inn.
Under his ownership, the bar nestled in a sleepy neighborhood in the Fan District was quickly transformed into a family-style diner selling platefuls of Italian food.
“My father had a wonderful business there,” says Diana Sharpe, Joe’s daughter. “He really did a lot to build it up as a really nice restaurant.”
But when the place was sold in 1975 to two brothers, it was converted back into a watering hole.
SIDE OF GREEK
Two years later, Greece-born Nick Kafantaris took over the lease and was intent on returning Joe’s to the family restaurant it once was. He doubled its size by converting the laundromat next door into a dining area, which would be far enough away from the bar as to not inconvenience customers. Today, the same two rooms comprise the restaurant.
He kept the ever-famous Spaghetti a la Joe but added the Spaghetti a la Greek to the menu, which to this day is baked with feta cheese and Romano, a nod to his heritage.
Kafantaris retired as a partner-owner in 2000, leaving it to his twin children, Tina and Michael, who today share ownership of the business with three others.
The meat sauce, especially, has never changed. In fact, not long after Kafantaris became owner, the original owner, Mencarini, was brought in to make it. Then, in failing health, Mencarini taught the recipe to Diana in 1985. She has since made gallons of the stuff each week, not only for the original location but for a Bon Air location since it opened in 1997 and an Innsbrook-area location that was open from 2000 to 2003.
Joe’s is a community spot, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Any day of the week there are well-to-do families with lit- tle ones eating in booths, young bohemians enjoying a cup of coffee and chatter, blue-collar types fueling for a day’s work and VCU students enjoying the cheap happy hour brews.
Even celebrities like Paul Giamatti, Hal Holbrook and novelist Patricia Cornwell have made stops at Joe’s.
“That’s what Joe’s Inn is all about,” Nick says. “When you walk in there, you don’t know if you’re going to see your lawyer or your ex-wife. It’s really a nice mixture of people.”
LIFE STAGES AT JOE’S
Since her youth, Tina Kafantaris has seen the span of people’s lives: Customers visiting the restaurant on first dates, then for engagement and wedding parties, when they’re expecting and in celebration of their children’s birthdays. Even memorial services have been held for long-term customers.
“Some feel this is their living room,” she says. “Our regulars become part of the family here. They really are a part of the place.”
Fan resident Otis Fulton, an education consultant, has been going to Joe’s since 1973. Since he has lived two blocks away from the restaurant for 10 years, he visits the restaurant several times a week with his family.
One year, doing his taxes, he discovered the family had spent more at Joe’s than they had in grocery stores.
“It’s kind of a community there – and the food is great,” says Fulton, 55. “Since my family’s been going there with me, we know all of the servers personally, and we know many of the customers personally.”
According to Tina, people like Fulton and his family keep coming back to Joe’s because most of all, they can trust it will remain as they’ve always remembered it.
Daniel Jones is BOOMER’s editorial assistant. Contact him at Daniel@TheBoomerMagazine.com.