January 27, 2023

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Couple still ‘living the dream’ after nearly four decades in restaurant business | Business

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If you haven’t stepped into Fredericksburg’s Parthenon restaurant for a number of years, you’ll be surprised to find it still looks, smells and feels the same as it did in the mid-1980s. In fact, you’ll still see owner Manny Psaras working in the kitchen while his wife Sophia tends to the tables and customers.

“The only thing that’s changed is I got them to close on Monday,” said Irene Psaras, the couple’s daughter who helps out on weekends and whenever she can get away from her own business next door at Renee’s Crepes and Cakes.

“It looks pretty much like it looked in the ’80s,” she said. “The kitchen is essentially the same.”

Irene said many things inside her parents’ small Greek and Italian restaurant haven’t changed much since March 1984, when the couple began serving homemade pizzas, pastas, gyros and baklava.

“Ninety-five percent of the stuff is still the same, other than the tablecloths and the booths,” she said. “Even the freezers and refrigerators are 50 years old. Everything’s still working.”

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Originally from the Greek island of Karpathos, which lies in the Mediterranean Sea between Rhodes and Crete, Manny and Sophia Psaras immigrated to Arlington in the mid-1970s separately to join relatives from each of their respective families who had already made the journey.

While in Greece, Manny worked as a laborer on construction jobs, pouring concrete for new homes. When he arrived in the U.S., his first job was as a busboy in a Northern Virginia restaurant. Unbeknownst to Manny, his future wife Sophia, who was also living in Arlington’s Greek community at the time, was a coat checker at another business in the area.

Irene said her father had a challenge speaking to others back then.

“He didn’t even know one word of English,” she said. “His best friend told him, whatever they say to you, you just repeat it.”

Manny eventually met Sophia in 1976 during a community event. Although just a couple of years older than Manny, Sophia said the two actually lived in the same small village while growing up on Karpathos and even attended the same school, but after they met on U.S. soil for the first time in years, she said she was a bit surprised at Manny’s reaction.

“He didn’t even recognize me,” Sophia said. “He said, ‘Who’s the young lady?’”

The couple fell in love and married the same year, and eight years went by until they decided to start their own business together.

The couple found three Northern Virginia restaurants for sale, including Fredericksburg’s Parthenon at 2024 Augustine Ave., which was originally owned by two brothers who sold it to another man. That man sold it to Manny and Sophia one year after he ventured into the business. For the first six months of ownership, the couple drove from Arlington to Fredericksburg seven days a week before moving into an apartment close to the business, where the new menu featured homemade meals with a Mediterranean flavor.

“(Manny) grew up making bread.” Irene said. “I think that’s where the trick is. Everything is home made.”

Although they didn’t know anyone in Fredericksburg when they first opened the restaurant, Sophia ventured out to deliver copies of the restaurant’s menu to local businesses and medical offices in the vicinity. The late Franklin Powell, who was running Powell’s Furniture—also on Augustine Avenue at the time—even pitched in to help the couple by spending over $300 to buy an advertisement in The Free Lance–Star announcing the new establishment. For their first year in business, Manny even stepped away from the oven to deliver pizzas to students in dorms at the University of Mary Washington.

“After we got more busy, we stopped doing that,” Manny said.

Irene, 41, said she grew up at the Parthenon, calling it “our first home.”

“They work hard,” Irene said. “They’re like robots.”

Now in their 70s, Irene said her parents’ dedication to serving the community a good meal hasn’t slowed down one bit since they first opened. She said her brother, a part-time dishwasher and herself are the only help the couple has to give them a hand.

“Unless I leave for Europe, I don’t have a weekend off,” Psaras said. “I think if they stop working they slow down more, but with them working there, it keeps them active.”

Over the last 38 years in Fredericksburg, Manny and Sophia have developed a loyal following of customers who patronize the old-school restaurant.

Stafford County Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Olsen has been a devoted Parthenon customer since it first opened.

“Manny makes the best pizza in town,” Olsen said. “He has perfected pizza.”

Olsen said the reason he keeps returning to the Parthenon is not only because of the great food and the “small-town restaurant feel,” but because of the warm hospitality always extended by Manny and Sophia each time he walks through the door.

“They’re so engaging. They’re so friendly,” Olsen said. “You feel like you’re a member of the family when you come, and that’s just the way it’s always felt.”

Barbara McQuiddy of southern Stafford has been dining at the Parthenon every Friday since the late 1970s, even before the Psaras’ took over, back when the two original owners were operating the restaurant.

“Everybody is so nice there and the food is always so good,” McQuiddy said. “For us to be going all these years, the food has to be good.”

A few days after the January blizzard that dumped a heavy blanket of snow across the region, Manny came down with COVID-19 and was forced to stay away from the business for several weeks. Today, he has a clean bill of health and he’s once again doing what he loves with his wife at his side. Irene said the idea of her parents ever retiring or closing the Parthenon is a topic the family doesn’t venture into.

“I don’t even bring it up,” Irene said. “They’re living the dream. I’ll just let them enjoy what they have.”

James Scott Baron: 540/374-5438

[email protected]

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