Olympia was his American dream

By David Perry, dperry@lowellsun.com
UPDATED:   11/11/2009 09:43:40 AM EST


LOWELL — Back in 1952, Socratis Tingas heard there was a vacant restaurant in Lowell.

Tingas was a romantic, and this was his dream. The American dream!

So what if other attempts had failed at this Acre address before? The Olympia would lift the curse of 453 Market St.

It did, of course, recalled Tingas’ three children, Stephen, 54, Nancy, 50, and Arthur, 46. They sat at a booth in the restaurant, Lowell’s oldest, with art of Greece in the wall and Greek columns rendered on blue. It seemed a bit bluer there yesterday.

Forks still clinked on plates, and the ice still tumbled around in glasses when the attentive staff refilled them with water.

Something was missing, though. Tingas himself. He died Sunday at 86 after a battle with cancer, leaving a wife of 57 years, Niki, a legacy of Greek food, and the sort of shadow cast by all too few self-made men these days. He was a regular at the front table until two weeks ago.

Tomorrow, the day of his funeral, the Olympia will be closed in his memory.

After 57 years, you could call the Olympia a success.

But it didn’t start so well.

Tingas was born in Manchester, N.H., the son of a Greek immigrant who worked in a restaurant. During the Depression, when things grew worse, Tingas’ father sent his family back to Greece, unable to support them here.

But Socratis insisted, “I am an American citizen.” He returned by boat at 23, with nothing.

Italy and the Germans had destroyed much of Greece, he said in 2005.He worked at the Athens Olympia Restaurant on Stuart Street in Boston. He made $31.72 a week, setting some aside for weekly voice lessons. He loved to sing, and chanted regularly in church. He worked at the Omonia Restaurant in Boston, doing everything from kitchen prep to busing and waiting tables.

He watched every aspect of the restaurant business keenly and when a vegetable purveyor mentioned a place in Lowell was available, Tingas headed here.

When he took over the Olympia Cafe in 1952 — the same year he married Niki, a neighbor from his Greek village — he paid $3,000.

“The guy who owned this building, he would sell to people, the business would fail and he’d buy it back for less money,” says Steve Tingas. “It was his way of making money. He thought my father would be the next guy.”

The business came with a chef with a taste for alcohol, says Steve. “It was part of the sabotage.”

And when the chef got sauced, the food was terrible.

“People were talking all over the city, in coffeehouses, about how terrible the food was. People would come in, get their food, throw their money on the table, disgusted.”

So Tingas fired the pickled cook. Using an old Greek cookbook of classic recipes he bought at a book sale at Holy Trinity church, he strapped on an apron and cooked himself. He infused each recipe with his own touches.

“They’re the ones we still use today,” says Steve.

Just as he taught himself to cook, he taught himself classical guitar along the way.

For all those years, he virtually lived at the restaurant. In at 6 a.m., out by 10 p.m., says Steve.

“He just loved the restaurant business,” says Arthur, who lives in Florida. He sent money to his parents, scrimped and saved.

“He helped us all in one way or another,” says Nancy, who lives in San Jose, Calif. She once was a hostess and coat-checker. “All the family worked in the restaurant, and people who came over from Greece, he gave them all jobs.”

In the late 1950s, his brother-in-law, Peter Cocalis, signed on as a business partner.

Both original families still own and oversee the daily operations of the restaurant.

For 18 months in the early ’60s, Tingas moved his family back to Greece. His allergies bothered him. But he missed the restaurant too much. They moved back to Lowell.

They bought and added adjoining buildings for function space. While Greek tradition ruled the menu, sleek disco boomed from The Zorba Room at night, beginning in 1976.

Tingas slowed down eventually, turned over the reins to his son, Steve, and Cocalis to his son, Kosta.

But Socratis Tingas never left. He ruled the front table with pals like Nikitas Flaris, often stepping into the kitchen to whip up off-the-menu dishes.

He always thought he’d beat the cancer, but he died “quickly, peacefully,” said son Steve. “God took an angel.”

“He was wonderful,” said the Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Clapsis, the parish priest at Assumption of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church in Dracut. The priest visited Tingas Sunday, about two hours before he died, to give him Communion.

Tingas smiled “through his pain,” said the priest. “He said, ‘I will come to church Sunday to chant with you.'”

Aug 12-14, 2009
Filming of the fighter.

Indoor as well as outdoor scenes from the 2010 film The Fighter
starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale was filmed here
@ The Olympia Restaurant, Lowell, MA from Aug 12-14, 2009.

August 2009
The Fighter Wahlberg hospitalized for smoke inhalation

Mark Wahlberg was rushed to the hospital on Friday morning after suffering smoke
inhalation on the set of his new film “The Fighter”.

“Mark was working on a scene [Thursday night] where a smoke  machine was being
used for atmosphere and apparently he breathed in too much  smoke,” a source tells

“When he woke up Friday morning he was gasping for breath so he was taken to
Massachusetts General Hospital where he was put on a breathing device that helped
clear his lungs.”

Like a real, errr, Fighter, Wahlberg was released and back at work the same day.
Wahlberg was back on set late on Friday, Aug. 14 during an overnight shoot near
Olympia Restaurant located at 453 Market St. featuring a slew of old-school cars

As previously reported, crews filmed scenes last week at the Lowell Superior Court
located at 360 Gorham Street. Production followed co-star Christian Bale as Ward’s
drug-addicted brother, Dickie Eklund, as he faces charges in criminal court and then
heads to lock up.

Bale was spotted in character, heading for lunch break at the Rogers School located at
43 Highland St., dressed in sweats and covered in blood. Wahlberg, back in town after
wedding model Rhea Durham in Los Angeles, was also on set.

On Thursday, Aug. 20, crews plan to film a date scene with Wahlberg and Amy Adams
between 4 p.m. and 4 a.m. at the Lexington Flick movie theater located at 1794 Mass.
Ave. in Lexington