In 1955, at the tender age of 21, Jimmy "Dimitri" Coroneos emigrated to the United States from Greece.
During his first week in America, Coroneos met his future wife, Millie. He settled in Ellicott City, worked in a factory near Catonsville and cashed his checks at the 8-Mile House.
"I targeted this place," Coroneos said. "In 1962, it went up for sale. I had to take over their mortgage and what they owed, with a very small down payment.
"It was a rough place, but I wanted to build it for families," he said. "I took a place that was like a flower ready to die, and that had no roots. I wanted to see the flower blossom, but I had a lot of gardening to do."
Jimmy Coroneos soon changed the name to Dimitri's Restaurant. He had a simple goal: Make it a destination for Baltimore-area residents seeking quality Greek and American food.
Fifty years later, John Kennedy and Johnny U. are in history books. But Jimmy and Millie, who married in 1968, are still at Dimitri's International Grille.
The roadhouse bar has become a staple of the community. The Frederick Road restaurant on a wooded stretch of land between the Main Street areas of Catonsville and Ellicott City has been so successful that the Coroneoses have expanded the dining area three times to its current size of 7,000 square feet.
"This was in my blood," said Coroneos. . "In Greece, my mother was constantly in the kitchen cooking. I knew her kind of cooking would go well here in the United States. And without Millie, I never could have done this."
The couple and their family will celebrate the restaurant's 50th anniversary during the weekend of Nov. 9-11. Billed as an open house rather than a formal anniversary party, Dimitri's will be decorated with old menus and pictures from the restaurant's five decades. The restaurant's famous "beef-ke-bob" machine will make an appearance, and that signature dish will be offered at half price on Saturday, Nov. 10. Diners will be able to order a "Dimitri's Greatest Hits" party platter for the price of $19.62.
"We want people to come in and just reminisce," said Litsa Wethern, the eldest daughter of Jimmy and Millie, who manages the restaurant with her husband, Tom.
The restaurant began with a single dining room and an adjoining bar area. Its menu featured authentic Greek dishes, along with more traditional American food. During that decade of family-style dining, Jimmy Coroneos created one of his signature dishes, the "beef-ke-bob" sandwich. He built a large, half-cylindrical "Gyrotisserie", which slowly cooked several layers of marinated and lightly seasoned beef. Coroneos later patented the rotisserie, which also made gyros, a Greek sandwich with marinated beef. The Dimitri's business cards still say "home of the famous beef-ke-bob".
In the 1970s, the restaurant expanded its menu to include more traditional Maryland food, such as crab cakes and fresh fish. Coroneos also added what became his most-requested meal, German sour beef and dumplings. The nod to Millie Coroneos' German heritage was well-received by Baltimoreans who had grown up with the unique regional dish.
In the 1980s, Dimitri's clientele grew with the addition of Italian cuisine. The restaurant was outgrowing its space, and the Coroneos family decided to expand for the first time.
Since then, Dimitri's has added another dining room and two deck areas to the original dining space. The bar area was converted into a sports lounge that currently features several Baltimore-themed sports murals. The artwork, designed and drawn by Dimitri's customers, pays tribute to both the Memorial Stadium and Oriole Park eras of Baltimore's baseball team. A separate mural is dedicated to the Ravens, and a third colorful piece honors horse racing, particularly the Preakness. Authentic Grecian columns have been added to the front exterior of the restaurant.
Dimitri's has also boosted its catering business.
An updated menu, which includes old favorites and new additions, will be rolled out in a few weeks.
"Every decade, they reinvented themselves," said Litsa, whose children, Alex and Kallista, are frequent helpers at the restaurant. "They didn't take away from their core dishes or recipes, but there was always some form of remodeling here to make the place fresh and new."
Huge murals in each dining room add to Dimitri's ethnic atmosphere. The Aegean Room features a composite of Greek life, with artwork of a church, a stone walk that leads to an outdoor breezeway, lemon trees, and fishing boats. An olive tree contains the names of each member of the Coroneos family, etched in Greek. The newer mural complements the one in the original dining room, known as Millie's Den, where a large building with traditional Greek columns looks down on a small seaside village.
"Every 10 years, we redirect the ship a little," said Tom Wethern, Litsa's husband. "We have to stay in touch with the trends and what our customers are asking for. Customers want healthier foods, and gluten-free, vegetarian, and smaller meals."
During the 50-year existence of the Coroneoses' labor of love, Dimitri's has picked up its share of awards. In early October, the Greater Catonsville Chamber of Commerce presented James and Millie with its Business Person of the Year award.
But the Coroneoses' most cherished prize is their family. Now an airline pilot, their son, Lambi, worked at the restaurant in the 1990s. Their other daughter, Christina, now an operations manager for a building company, worked at the restaurant until 2007.
"Raising children and doing business is not easy," said Millie. "The kids were always here, and the grandchildren are here just like they were. And we're very proud of Tom and Litsa for the way they run the restaurant. They have followed in our footsteps very well."
The business is closed on Mondays so that everyone can spend time with their families.
"In the beginning, I worked seven days a week for five straight years," Coroneos said. "Finally, I decided to close the business on Mondays and Tuesdays. I was very conscientious with the business, and I had control of it. But I stayed small, in order to raise my family. If I did expand, I wouldn't have been able to spend any time with the family at all. We always tried to combine the business and the family, and it's worked very well."
While hundreds of Baltimore-area restaurants have opened and closed in the past 50 years, Dimitri's has thrived.
"You have to go into this business with a passion," Litsa Werthen said. "You can't just want to have a restaurant so that you can come in and sit on a bar stool. That's not the proper equation. You've got to live and breathe it."
"It's not a good business for absentee owners," said her husband, who joined Dimitri's in the late 1990s. "For most of the 50 years, someone in the family has been here during the busy part of the day."
Tom and Litsa Wethern stressed that several employees have worked for the restaurant for decades. Hostess Betty Burris has been a familiar face to patrons since the 1980s. Salvatore Alfeo, from Sicily, has been Dimitri's master chef for more than 10 years. Matthew Thompson, a manager, has been at Dimitri's since 2001, and Bonnie Bewley, another manager, has been a fixture since 1990. Former manager Elmer Rutherford started in the 1960s and retired in 2002.
"A lot of customers realize that we have nice people working here, and that they've been here for a long time," said Litsa. "And that speaks volumes."