Out went high-falutin’ words like “nouveau,” “au jus” and “reduction.” Montreal foodies, their palates jaded by decades of haute cuisine, fairly tripped over themselves to find multiple ways of saying “artery-clogging,” “heart attack on a plate” and “the ultimate hangover food.”
“Out of this world” was a standard.
For 35 years behind the counter at Cosmo Snack Bar, on Montreal’s Sherbrooke Street West, proprietor Tony Koulakis (no, his name wasn’t Cosmo) served up all-day breakfasts that would cause palpitations in cardiologists. Eggs, bacon, glistening sausage and Tony’s signature hash brown potatoes, in portions fit for a stevedore, were heaped onto plates that were often chipped – that is, if you could snag one of the 11 rickety vinyl-topped diner stools at the counter (some regulars preferred the ones plastered with duct tape). Tables? Only outside on the sidewalk, in the summer.
When smoking was still allowed in restaurants, four of the stools were designated “non-smoking.” Bills would be randomly rounded up or down.
The very definition of the greasy spoon, the hole-in-the-wall eatery is a Montreal landmark where, on weekends especially, diners stand three-deep to tuck into: The “Creation” sandwich, an egg, salami, lettuce, tomato and cheese monstrosity (it used to contain sausage as well, until that was deemed overkill); the Good Morning Burger, a hamburger topped by a fried egg; and the ungodly MishMash omelette: bacon, four eggs, ham, sausage, salami, tomatoes, onions and cheese, all fried in margarine, with a side of hash browns (the concoction was once sent for chemical analysis and clocked in at a gut-busting 1,800 calories).
Nothing cost more than $10. And the place offered 15 types of bread. It was once estimated that Mr. Koulakis went through 25 loaves of rye, kimmel and black Russian bread a day, and fried 20 dozen eggs and 25 pounds of bacon every day, too.
From 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., every day but Monday, the mustachioed, baseball-capped Tony laughed, cooked, kibbitzed and faux-hollered. And smoked. Quebec’s politics and hockey were always on the menu. Out of milk? No problem – just send a diner across the street to the grocery. When orders were placed, he would call out, “nice breakfast, Niki!” Which worked, because the person holding the spatula was often either his daughter, Niki, or his son, Nikos, standing maybe a metre away. Or both.
He had another son, Johnny, who’d also worked in the restaurant years ago.
On June 23, the 40-year-old Johnny Koulakis was charged with second-degree murder in connection with the stabbing death the night before of his father, who was 76 years old.
According to The Gazette of Montreal, neighbours described the suspect as disturbed and confrontational. One neighbour said he had been threatened by Johnny Koulakis.
Bouquets still adorn Cosmo’s darkened stoop. Regulars have expressed shock and sadness. The old man deserved a better fate, they say. No one seems to know when the place will reopen.
He was a Montreal original, approaching a legend. “Sometimes known as Captain Cholesterol or the Lord of the Potatoes, he had an endearing gruffness about him, but he was unfailingly upbeat and charming in his own inimitable fashion,” The Gazette’s Bill Brownstein wrote, in the last of a dozen articles on Mr. Koulakis.
An “institution to garbagemen and bank presidents alike” (and a hang-out for media types), Cosmo was “your basic down-home no-frills, no-ferns eatery that is geared entirely to your gut,” Mr. Brownstein wrote in 1990. “There is no room for clients with airs. Truth is, there is precious little air circulating around the griddle where Tony Koulakis presides.”
People would come just for the hash browns. “I am the god from the potatoes!” Tony would blurt out over the sizzle of the grill in his trademark rasp if a compliment came his way. Asked what made the spuds so tasty, Dustin Gilman, who blogs at Food Guy Montreal, paused, chuckled and said, “cigarette ash.” (It was a standard joke, apparently.)
There was no secret. His late wife, Erene, peeled 150 pounds of fresh potatoes (fresh was key) every day. Tony boiled them, chopped in fresh onions and fried them. “That’s the secret,” he told a reporter.
Sure, people knew Tony’s grub wasn't exactly health food, Mr. Gilman conceded. But folks thronged there for a simple reason: “It made you happy.”
Other reviewers were similarly kind, and some others less so. “The staff behind the counter handle money and your food at the same time,” one carped. “So that kind of grossed me out.”
Friends and regulars knew little of Tony’s personal life. He was born in Crete and came to Canada in 1954, marrying his wife three years later. He didn’t finish school and opened Cosmo in 1967 when he was already 40 years old.
Mr. Koulakis was the subject of an award-winning documentary released in 2000, Man of Grease, by Montreal filmmaker Ezra Soiferman (it was he who sent the MishMash out for lab tests). A funny, loving, poignant portrait that has enjoyed wide festival and television exposure, it showed a different, more human side of Mr. Koulakis, as in his apprehension about taking his first vacation in decades.
“He was a little nervous about leaving the restaurant in the hands of his kids,” Mr. Soiferman recalled. “He was nervous about flying. He was nervous that they just had a big earthquake in Greece the week before. He joked that his wife would divorce him if he didn’t go.”
But once he arrived on his first vacation in decades, “he was a different man.” One scene in the film shows him floating serenely in the aqua Aegean Sea.
Another regular once encountered Mr. Koulakis angry, for real. It was just after Tony had received notice from Quebec language inspectors that the English words on the sign out front, “Delicious breakfasts,” had to go.
“He wanted to know why they came after small businesses and after those who were only trying to feed their families,” said Terry DiMonte, an announcer at Montreal’s CHOM-FM radio station. “We had a nice long conversation about governments and how intrusive they can be. It clearly angered him. He said to me, ‘And I come from the place where democracy was born.’”
Even so, Mr. Koulakis dutifully climbed a ladder and painted over the offending words. “You gotta respect the law,” he said in the film.
Meantime, neighbourhood homeless people, or those just down and out, were often treated to free meals, or were told to come back later. At the end of each day, leftovers were handed out, given to food banks or dumped on the forest floor near his cottage for the animals. “He used to say to me it was a sin to throw away food,” Mr. DiMonte said.
Tony retired around 2002 and his wife died almost exactly a decade ago from cancer. He would pop by the restaurant unannounced to see how Niki and Nikos were doing. The place was usually full.
Customers routinely told Tony he’d clean up if he would simply expand beyond the closet-sized eatery.
“Big deal,” he would reply, as The Gazette recounted. “Money isn’t everything. Maybe I’d do better business if the place had more tables and counter space, but then Cosmo would lose its special touch.
“I like to give good, fresh stuff,” he would growl, often a propos of nothing. “That’s why the people love me so much.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this obituary incorrectly stated Mr. Koulakis age.