By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — How will you be able to tell that a new owner has taken over at the Wardhurst Grille in South Peabody?
“You won’t,” said Spero Demakes, who will be running the restaurant once the paperwork is completed. “The restaurant is an institution, and I’d be crazy to go in there and blow it up.”
Demakes, 40, has purchased the restaurant from longtime owner Peter Routses, who is retiring at age 68. Routses followed his father into the restaurant business and has been running the popular eatery for decades. He leaves for a chance to rest and enjoy life with his wife, Sue.
“I’m getting out while I’ve got my health,” he said. “I want to enjoy a few things I’ve been putting off. Enjoy my grandchildren.”
George Routses, Peter’s father, opened his first restaurant in 1949. It was natural for his son to follow in his footsteps. The Wardhurst, famous for its shish kebab and lamb dishes, developed a solid reputation in South Peabody.
“Being an only child,” Peter said, “my father said, ‘You better know how to run this, kid. It’s going to be yours.’ So, I got into the restaurant business, and I’ve had no regrets. It’s been good for the family. ... My customers — I’ll miss them the most. We made a lot of wonderful friendships. My customers are like family to me.”
Even so, it wasn’t always easy work. Routses said that he leaves with steel rods implanted in his back. His dad left in a wheelchair.
“Just too many hours,” he said. “Too many double shifts, on his feet all the time.”
The hard work paid dividends.
“The Wardhurst is a tradition for people in Peabody,” said Bill Power, a longtime member of the city’s historical society. “I often meet people down there.”
Likewise, Minas Dakos, chairman of the Licensing Board, singles out the Wardhurst as one of the city’s most iconic restaurants.
Routses is pleased that Demakes will now run the restaurant.
“He’s a young guy. I’m sure he’s going to do fine. I can’t think of a better guy to buy it.”
Starting in the family restaurant, Jimmy’s Allenhurst in Danvers, as a dishwasher at age 12, Demakes will bring a lot of modern business acumen to the job. A graduate of St. John’s Prep and Babson College, he already owns Matty’s Food and Spirits on Endicott Street in Danvers and has a share of Sidelines in Salem. Newly married, he and his wife, Melissa, are expecting their first child in a few months.
All the new responsibility has led him to drop one of his passions: cooking.
“That’s really freed up my time,” he said.
And he has confidence, having trained cooks at each of his restaurant locations. He might add some new twists to the Wardhurst, but he said he applauds the variety of the current menu, the generous servings and low prices. He singles out the pastichio, a kind of Greek lasagna featuring ground lamb and cheeses, as a favorite.
“And there are not a lot of places that serve lamb,” he noted.
“I plan to be hands-on at the Wardhurst,” Demakes said.
Just as in his other restaurants, food will be fresh and made from scratch, nothing out of cartons or jars.
“I had a meeting with the staff,” he said. “I told them, ‘You run a great place. Stick to the basics, and I think it’ll be fine.’”
Demakes said that competition has increased in the restaurant business, making it more difficult.
“But then the new technology makes it a little easier,” he said.
He has no misgivings about following his dad into a life in food service.
“You just get brought up in it,” he said, smiling. “And you can always make a solid living for your family, as long as you like people and you put out a quality product at reasonable prices.”