City Paper is not for tourists
Stelios Alexandris has been filling water glasses and taking orders long enough that he used to serve Hubert Humphrey at The Monocle on Capitol Hill. “I was like up to here to him,” Alexandris says, hovering his hand around his shoulder to show his height compared to that of the then-senator and former vice-president. In fact, he still has a photo the two once took together. “He was hugging me. He was a tall man! I had long hair over my ears. Those were the fashions of the ’70s.”
For the past three decades, though, Alexandris has been a front-of-house pillar at Georgetown’s 1789 Restaurant, where he’s served a list of Washington’s who’s who that would put even the most avid namedroppers to shame. He recalls catering a dinner for the first President George Bush at the Blair House during his inauguration, President Bill Clinton circling the restaurant to shake hands with nearly every fellow diner, and that one time Bob Hope broke into song in the middle of the dining room.
But among all the big names and important figures, Alexandris has become something of an institutional celebrity himself. Patrons frequently request to be put in “Steli’s” section when they make reservations. “They say, ‘We don’t really care where in the restaurant we sit, as long as that’s where he’s working,’” 1789 General Manager Rich Kaufman says. Even before Kaufman joined the staff two and half years ago, Alexandris was on his radar. “He’s just one of those guys, you come in to dinner here more than once or twice and you talk to people, you just end up knowing him.”
Last week, Alexandris finally got some recognition beyond the equestrian print–covered walls of the fine dining establishment where he’s worked for more than half of his life. With his two sons, wife, and sister looking on, Alexandris received the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington’s annual RAMMY award for Employee of the Year—one of the few honors that recognizes local industry vets who are neither chefs nor restaurateurs. (Washington City Paper is a RAMMYS media sponsor.) Actually, “vet” is an understatement. At 59 years old, Alexandris has been a waiter at 1789 longer than the restaurant’s general manager, chef, and a lot of the staff have even been alive. That’s no small achievement in a business where employees come and go as frequently as menu specials. So what would possess someone to work in the same place, in the same humble position for 34 years?
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Alexandris was 19 when he moved to D.C. from Athens, Greece, in 1973. He and his sister followed their mother, who didn’t speak English but came here to work here as a babysitter for another Greek family. Like many immigrants, she hoped the move would bring more opportunities and a better education for her children. Alexandris started at the TESST College of Technology in Beltsville but decided to drop out so he could help his mom financially and provide for himself. He started as a busboy at the now-defunct Seafare Restaurant on Connecticut Avenue NW, then held a number of hospitality jobs—serving hotdogs and opening Cokes at a hotel pool, working room service, helping out at a couple of Greek nightclubs around Dupont Circle—before landing the waiter gig at The Monocle in 1976.
In 1980, when he was 25, a friend brought Alexandris over to work at 1789, where he was then one of the youngest servers on staff. In the early years, Alexandris also helped part-time with banquets and catering for various embassies, the International Monetary Fund, and U.S. News & World Report’s office dining room (where he met his wife, an assistant manager).
The restaurant itself was far more formal back then. All the waiters were men; all of them wore tuxedos. The French style of service meant servers would flambé and carve dishes tableside. The clientele was also different. Alexandris says he would never see women dining without men accompanying them in his early tenure at 1789. And everyone was much, much older: “When I started it was all senior citizens,” he says. “Now you see young, white-collar people.” Instead of an ashtray on every table, there always seems to be a cellphone in its place these days.
But through those changes and as others came and went, Alexandris happily stayed. “It is not normal in this day and age to find someone who’s been working in the same restaurant for 34 years and there’s not even a tinge of him being jaded,” says Kaufman.
The explosion of restaurants has only made the job more transient. Even at 1789, which has the lowest turnover within the Clyde’s Restaurant Group, management still has to hire 10 to 12 new servers a year. At other places, it’s even more of a revolving door, with staff turning over so frequently that the hiring ads, especially for waiters, never come down. “In this day and age, especially in D.C., where there’s just so many new restaurants, people tend to move around just because the grass is always greener, or to try something new,” Kaufman says.
Alexandris is aware he’s an anomaly now. “I don’t think anybody is looking for a career in waiting tables,” he says. “The only ones who really stay long are the ones who cannot find another job…By the time you learn their names, they leave.”
But Alexandris says he never felt “stuck.” When he began his career as a waiter, it was just that—a career. While many nowadays see the position as a stop on the way to something else, there were many more people a generation ago who raised families and retired at the job, and were proud of that. Alexandris has never thought of his position as a low-level one.
And so he’s never had any aspirations to change things up. He applied once to be a bartender at 1789, but the gig went to someone else. And he says he’s been approached over the years to work at other establishments, some that might have been more lucrative, but he’s stayed put.
Alexandris says he inherited his long-standing passion for 1789 in part from Georgetown University alum Richard McCooey, who opened the restaurant in 1960 and owned it until Clyde’s Restaurant Group bought and remodeled it in 1985. “He would walk around and it’s like, ‘Oh gosh, who put that there? It should be here,” Alexandris says rotating a cup on the shelf a few slight degrees in imitation of his former boss. “From him, I felt energy…This is the energy you get from people when they care for a place.”
Similarly, Kaufman says Alexandris has been known to come in on his own time to repair chairs and other things. His dedication to the restaurant has often meant personal sacrifices. After all, when you work in the restaurant industry, you’re working during Thanksgiving, Easter, PTA meetings, and all those after-school activities for your kids. Alexandris says he’s eternally grateful to his wife, now an assistant division manager for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, who’s helped raise their 18- and 25-year-old sons, who are both students. Alexandris doesn’t come off as the least bit bitter about what he’s missed: “It gave me the opportunity to send my children to schools and provide for them and myself a good living,”he says. “I’m always appreciative of this restaurant and of America itself. It’s something that I think when you’re born here, you take it for granted.”
For Alexandris, the job has been first and foremost about people, not simply a way to make ends meet. He says he makes between $40,00 and $50,000 a year. “When I started working in this business, I got so much pleasure out of the people that their tip was secondary,” he says. “My colleagues, without putting down anybody, that’s the primary source they’re here. They’re here to make money, and that’s it…For me this place has been more of a family attachment than employment.”
That’s not to say that Alexandris hasn’t had some big paydays over the years. He recalls one couple he served a few times over the course of a few months requested him specifically one evening five years ago. “[The man] said, ‘Look, it’s a special night, I wanted to share it with you…I’m going to propose to her,’” Alexandris remembers. At the end of the night, the $1,000 meal came with $1,000 tip—the biggest gratuity Alexandris has ever received.
To Kaufman, that bond with guests is no surprise. “He’s just pleasant to everyone. If you sit at the bar and have a drink, and he’s waiting for cocktails for his guests, he’s going to chat you up,” Kaufman says. “Your mom comes in, that’s the guy you want waiting on her.”
Still, Alexandris knows he won’t be able to stay forever. Time is already taking its toll on him physically. Instead of running around and coming straight to work, he says he needs at least an hour of rest before coming in if he’s going to make it through his eight-hour shifts five times a week. The Silver Spring resident recently had to take a few weeks off because of back problems and other health issues. But whenever he hangs up his server’s vest, Alexandris has plenty of hobbies, including oil painting and watercolors, playing guitar, and tennis.
There is also one other job he’d like to tackle: author. He’d like to tell the story of his experience as a server, meeting politicos and celebs, and his love for the restaurant.
“I feel like part of the building,” he says. “I feel at home.”
CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, this story initially stated that Alexandris did catering for 1789 during his early years at the restaurant. In fact, the part-time catering gig was not associated with 1789.
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery