Married into a Greek family, apparel designer Beth Fatsis now runs Atlantis Taverna
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Brava Magazine
Column: Around the Table
Related recipe: Kleftiko, Clay-Roasted Lamb
Beth Fatsis, co-owner of Atlantis Taverna in Sun Prairie and Plaka Taverna in downtown Madison, and former operator of the the Athenian Garden food cart on the UW-Madison Library Mall, never expected her life to turn out so Greek.
“My first Greek food was trying spanakopita – spinach pie – and baklava during the 70s at a small health food store in my hometown [Chatham, in upstate New York]. I had never seen filo dough before and was intrigued at how thin it was and how expertly it was layered,” she remembers.
In 1983, with her brand-new degree in apparel design, Beth headed for Dallas to break into the thriving clothing industry there. She made patterns for various dress manufacturers, created custom wedding gowns and dance costumes, and started a wholesale and retail maternity clothing business.
Then, in the mid-1990s, she met Telly Fatsis. He had come to Dallas straight out of college too, around the same time as Beth, to work in the restaurant business. But now, after a divorce, he was headed home to his native Madison, where he was soon to open Cleveland’s Diner downtown. After two years of long-distance dating (“I was in a building lease for the business and wasn't going to break the lease,” says Beth), she moved up here, they married, and the rest is Greek food history.
Today, Beth, 47, could vie for a spot on both Top Chef and Project Runway – the famed reality-TV competitions for cooks and fashion designers respectively – and rewrite My Big Fat Greek Wedding from the point of view of a non-Greek woman who joins a Hellenic clan. Of that flick, Beth says, “The focus on food is definitely not an exaggeration. A family dinner can easily be a party for 30 people – and there will still be leftovers.”
Vesna Vuynovich Kovach: How did you feel making the switch from fashion to food?
Beth Fatsis: I was ready to get out of apparel. It's not glamourous like the magazines lead you to believe. It's hard for the little guy to compete with the big corporations who have access to cheap labor. It became stressful – trying to guess what people would buy, investing money each season and hoping the customers liked your product, [dealing with] damaged merchandise and returns.
The restaurant business “looked so easy”– ha, ha – when Telly was doing the breakfast/lunch thing. I wanted to do something new.
VVK: In 2006 you opened Atlantis Taverna. This summer you reopened Cleveland’s Diner as Plaka Taverna. How did you and Telly transition from a diner and a food cart to this more fully realized Greek dining experience?
BF: The Cleveland’s space was available [in 1995]. However, it [had been] known as a breakfast/lunch diner for decades, and Telly chose to keep the same theme. He wasn’t ready to plunge into a full-service dinner restaurant with a bar. A Greek restaurant was a distant goal.
The food cart was a low-overhead means of expanding the business and getting into selling Greek food. I ran it for five years. I enjoyed the street vending and the people, but the physical work got more and more difficult as I got older. Lifting, hauling, packing, unpacking, hitching the trailer twice a day. The festivals were profitable, but they usually involved 16-hour days of work. A lot of people think that a food cart is a fun sideline business. But it is a business just like any other. You can't treat it like a bake sale. Telly and I wanted to open another restaurant and I couldn't do both the cart and the restaurant.
VVK: What makes Greek food special? What do you like about it?
It’s healthy, and the herbs blend nicely. It’s typically not hot and spicy. I also love garlic, which is abundant. It can go as simple as a tomato-feta-cucumber plate drizzled with olive oil, or as complicated as a moussaka (eggplant casserole) with all its processes.
The Greeks still don’t have the massive transportation system we have in this country, being as mountainous as they are. You will find that a Greek dish will differ according to the region in which it has evolved. Telly’s family is from the Peloponnese region in southern Greece, so most of the cooking at the restaurants reflects that.
There is a lot of overlap between Greek food and that of Turkey and portions of the Mideast and Eastern Europe. Populations migrate, empires rise and fall, and food traditions get adopted by different cultures. The recipes generally evolve around what products are readily available in the villages. Olive trees are plentiful, so olive oil is a staple. Spanakopita (spinach pie), dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), moussaka, eggplant salad, kebobs, pita bread – these are some examples of foods found not only in Greece, but in neighboring regions as well.
VVK: How do you and Telly work it, running two Greek restaurants in neighboring cities?
BF: He runs Plaka; I run Atlantis. We don’t do well together working side by side. We discuss ideas – marketing, menu ideas. But in the end, we each make our own decisions. It’s a lot easier to manage the responsibilities when you only have one restaurant to focus on.
VVK: Is there a difference in what the two communities want?
BK: Definitely. We sell a lot of gyros and fries in Sun Prairie. We get more families with children, so we also offer burgers and pizza, with a Greek flair, at Atlantis. The Madison palate tends to be more adventuresome than Sun Prairie’s.
VVK: What’s the most popular dish on the menu?
BF: At Atlantis, it’s probably the Mama’s Homebaked Combo, a combination of the moussaka, the pastitsio, green beans, rice pilaf, and feta cheese. Our falafel and spinach pie combos are popular as well.
VVK: What's your favorite dish on the menu?
BF: The moussaka. You can taste the cinnamon and cloves in the meat sauce, as well as the fresh parsley. The béchamel (cream) sauce on top is really its own separate entity with a hint of nutmeg, yet when you take a forkful of the moussaka you get the whole combination at once. It’s hearty and filling, and has a pleasing blend of spices. I also love eggplant.
VVK: How would you compare and contrast the two spots?
BK: Atlantis has brighter colors and lots of foliage. More of what you’d think of when you say “Mediterranean.” In reality, though, the tavernas in Greece are pretty rustic. Plaka is smaller and more intimate than Atlantis. It has a more rustic feel, with the distressed tables and the darker colors.
In Greece, we collected menus from several of the restaurants we visited, knowing that we’d want to take elements of those menus and use them here. We also took notes on the décor of different tavernas. Telly’s aunt and uncle used to own a taverna in their village in Greece, a neighborhood place with an uncomplicated menu. The pork kebobs on our menu are named after Telly’s uncle, “Theo Pavlo” – “Uncle Paul.”
VVK: The murals on Atlantis’s walls are beautiful. Can you tell more about them?
BF: I did all the artwork myself. The real-life villages really do look a lot like the mural: plain rectangular buildings without a lot of frills. The style of the artwork is playful, which is the mood Telly and I wanted to create in the dining room. Not too serious.
VVK: There’s an element in the mural depicting an episode from your cart vending days. Down at the Library Mall, you had a conflict with a street musician that got into the news. I understand that, after complaints by you and several others, he was issued a noise citation that was eventually overturned.
BF: A two-and-a-half hour dose of the piccolo daily is very unnerving, due to the high pitch. Other musicians who got there earlier in the day, were greeted with loud piccolo music played over their music. Employees in the buildings nearby were distracted by the shrill sound. Piccolo Man included in his repertoire the national anthems of Thailand, Greece, and Jamaica, because those food carts all complained.
If you look at the mural at Atlantis Taverna, you’ll see I painted a “tribute” to him in my mural. It’s not a compliment to his character. I used a very fine brush and painted a scene inside a church that most people don't even notice is there unless I point it out. It was my way of closing that dispute.
Each month in her column “Around the Table,” freelance writer Vesna Vuynovich Kovach profiles women who are influential in Wisconsin foodways: cooks and bakers, farmers, teachers, authors, activists and more.