HALFMOON, N.Y. — The Halfmoon Diner has become a fixture in the area for family meals, business lunches, and early morning breakfasts.
Earlier this month the family that built and owned this southern Saratoga mainstay all celebrated the diner’s 30th anniversary.
With its two-story rectangular glass and polished steel entryway at the corner of Route 9 and Grooms Road, the diner has long been a beacon for anyone with a hunger for home cooking.
The building and the family business it houses was the idea of Pete Vasilakos. Vasilakos was a partner in a diner in Queens, N.Y. when he spotted the corner lot in Halfmoon with the prominent maple tree out front during a family trip to Saratoga State Park in 1987.
Vasilakos, who has since ceded the day to day dealings to his sons, Jim and Ted, had worked as a line chef at several diners in the Capital Region in the 1960s and knew the Capital Region in general terms.
On a trip back to Queens after an annual family picnic for Greek-Americans from the family’s village in Greece, Vasilakos saw the lot with its brick house and For Sale sign. He did a U-turn on Route 9, looked it over, and pronounced that he wanted to build a diner there.
Jim Vasilakos was 11, his brother Ted was five and their sister, Zoe, was four. All three children were in the car. Jim remembers the day well.
“I remember him doing the U-turn and looking at the lot,” he said recently. “I remember the big tree. Mike Degenero was living in the house with his daughter and wanted to sell it. My father bought it, sold the house to a guy who moved it behind us, had the diner built, and we opened on Aug. 7, 1989.”
The family moved to the area from their home on Long Island and all three children graduated from the Shenendehowa School District. Zoe (Vasilakos) Montanaro is now teaching there. The two boys own the diner and continue pitching in with jobs they first started doing at 16.
“I was working in the kitchen, moving plates [of food], busing tables and washing dishes,” Jim Vasilakos said recalling his first chores.
When his brother was old enough, he started doing the same jobs. Both boys eventually graduated from Shen and set off for college. Jim Vasilakos headed to Schenectady County Community College’s Hotel, Restaurant, and Culinary Arts program with a dream of being a five-star chef. Ted Vasilakos went off to Siena College looking for a career in business.
“There was no question of finding a summer job,” Ted Vasilakos said. “I worked weekends and summers all the time I was in Siena.”
“You had a choice whether you wanted to work here or not during summers, but you really didn’t have a choice if you know what I mean,” added his brother.
At the start of the second semester at SCCC Jim Vasilakos got up after one class and left the program for good.
“I have no regrets, none,” he said. “I thought I could be more of an asset here.”
Ted Vasilakos graduated from Siena and landed an accounting position with a firm in Albany. It was the start of fulfilling his dream of a career in business management. He lasted two years before the routine brought him back to the diner.
“There’s always something to do here,” he said. “You have to analyze everything. There are recurring problems, but you deal with them. Every day you wake up you have to expect a problem. There are a lot of moving parts and you have to deal with it.”
“I like it here,” Jim Vasilakos added. “I like the fast pace. We both like what we do otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it. If you work hard, anything is possible.”
One of the intrinsic things about the diner is its family feel. That feeling of home comes out in the menu, the meals, the baking, and the service.
“We have moussaka, spanakopita (made by family matriarch Christina), souvlaki, and gyro sandwiches, but the most popular items we have are our stuffed scallops, stuffed peppers and lamb shanks,” Jim Vasilakos said. “People will call and ask if we have the scallops that night and I say tomorrow and they’ll give me their name and we’ll put an order or two aside for them. If we don’t have it on the menu for a while, we hear about it.”
According to Jim Vasilakos one of the main reasons for the consistently high quality of the food is the tenure of the kitchen staff. Chef Osmin Flores has been in the kitchen for 30 years, 20 as head chef. Breakfast cook Chape Herrera has been at the diner 30 years. Line cook Gary Martinez has been there 20, baker Angelo Nikolaidis has been there since day one, and busboy Jose Hernandez has been there 20 years. The kitchen staff also includes seven or eight additional employees who have been there for 19 years.
Out front, morning waitress Sharon Johnson has been serving customers for 30 years.
“We have a core of people that have been here 20 to 30 years, and that really helps,” Jim Vasilakos said.
Physical additions to the building’s 5,000-square-feet have been few; a small back room, the front steps were replaced with a glass-enclosed ramp, and some interior remodeling.
With their father and mother, vacationing in Greece, both men admit the 30th anniversary snuck up on them.
“We closed this year for one week,” Jim Vasilakos said. “We took a family vacation (to Sparta, Greece); all five of us together for the first time since 1986.”
Looking around the busy dining area and its mid-morning breakfast crowd Jim Vasilakos smiled.
“We serve between 500 and 600 people a day. There’s a very good base of regulars here and it shows,” he said. “We have good food, friendly service, ambiance, with reasonable prices and we’re in one of the fastest-growing towns in the region.”
“It’s a nice town; a nice county,” added Ted Vasilakos.