New owners set to take over local institution

Longtime chef pledges to keep Reo Diner

Staff Writer

Staff Writer

MIGUEL JUAREZ staff After 35 years, Reo owners George Forakis (l), and his uncle Teddy Likakis recently sold the Woodbridge diner to four new partners. Forakis said he grew up in the Reo.MIGUEL JUAREZ staff After 35 years, Reo owners George Forakis (l), and his uncle Teddy Likakis recently sold the Woodbridge diner to four new partners. Forakis said he grew up in the Reo.

Diners — besides high car insurance rates, traffic and "The Sopranos" — they’re what New Jersey is known for.

And according to Teddy Likakis, former co-owner of The Reo Diner on Amboy Ave., Woodbridge Township has the best one in the world.

"This is the heart of Woodbridge," Likakis said. "It’s a famous place. Anywhere you go, you mention the Reo, people know it. All over the country, all over the world. It’s the best."

Opened in 1928 by the Papas family, The Reo, originally named the Hy-Way Diner, was the first diner in the state to stay open around the clock.

The Hy-Way Diner became the Reo, former co-owner George Forakis said, because the Papas family wanted to have the diner’s name in neon lights.

The word Hy-Way had so many letters, the cost for the neon was too expensive, so they decided to change the name.

"In the ’30s they wanted a new name and a Reo auto pulled up. They were already thinking about changing the name and Reo only had three letters, so to save money on the letters, they changed it to Reo," Forakis said.

But, as Likakis will tell you, the Reo is more than just a name.

"This is it. The Reo is people’s home away from home. As soon as they walk in, they’re known by their first name. This is the place. Everybody comes here. They say, ‘Meet me at the Reo,’ " Likakis said.

Likakis and his nephew, Forakis, whose families owned and operated the Reo since 1969, recently sold the diner to four new owners, partners Manny and Mike Kontos, Alex Koufomihalis and Nick Kostas, who has been the Reo’s chef for the past 23 years.

Forakis said he and Likakis still love the Reo, but it was time to move on.

"Everything has its time, but it’s time to move on," said Forakis, who will be opening Studio 9, a supper club on Route 9.

"My uncle deserves to retire and relax," he added.

Back in its heyday, Forakis said five of the Likakis/Forakis clan ran the diner — Forakis and his father, Emanuel; Likakis’ late son, Michael; and cousins, George and Zachary Likakis, who are dentists now.

"We all worked together hand-in-hand. We were one big family unit operating [the Reo]," Forakis said. "That’s changed over the years."

"They’re beautiful people," Likakis said of the new owners. "The Greek hospitality will continue."

The new owners plan to renovate the Reo, although the layout and the feeling of familiarity and a sense of home will be the same, Kostas said.

"I’m here 23 years," he said. "We’re going to try to do our best. We won’t lose the old feeling, just the old booths."

Kostas said he and his partners are planning a complete renovation, inside and out.

"Everything will be new. We’re going to renovate the whole place. The Reo is going to be a new diner," he said. "New floor, new booths, everything new."

Everything that is, except the wall of fame behind the cash register.

"I got the idea from Little Italy," Forakis said. "A lot of establishments have pictures of people on the wall as you walk through their doors. So I started one with one picture."

Now, Forakis said, there are about 100 pictures on the wall. Many of them are people who have walked through the Reo’s doors: Danny Aiello, Joe Pesci, talk radio host Bob Grant, who broadcasts his annual leukemia fund-raiser from the Reo, and some familiar townspeople, too.

Mayor Frank Pelzman, Business Administrator John Mitch and Walter Hanks, director of emergency management services, all have their photographs on the wall.

And for every photograph on the wall, there are one thousand more stories.

No matter who you ask, everyone has a story about the Reo.

Mitch said his countenance is on the wall because every Thursday since 1980 he and his good friend, Hanks, have shared dinner at the Reo.

"We went there for 20 years almost every Thursday night," Mitch said. "That’s what earned us a spot on the wall."

Both are former fire chiefs and fire commissioners of the Avenel Fire Company; the pair’s Thursday night appearances were so reliable they began taking calls there.

"We used to accept calls there, but our circuit’s gotten a little bit bigger since then," he said.

Pelzman, who graduated from high school in 1952, said many high school dates finished up at the Reo.

"That’s where they all ended up on Saturday night," said Pelzman, who used to take his wife, Dorothy, to the Reo when they were dating in high school. "Going to the Reo was absolutely part and parcel of every date. If you took a girl out, you’d invariably, at some point during the night, wind up at the Reo."

Pelzman said the Reo was always the best excuse to use for breaking curfew.

"If we came home late and we told our parents we were at the Reo, then it was OK because they knew we were safe," he said.

Lifelong resident Barbara Wyatt said she was at the Reo eating Sunday dinner with her family when she heard Pearl Harbor had been bombed by the Japanese in 1942.

"We heard it broadcast over the radio. We didn’t have television then," Wyatt said. "We just happened to be eating there before visiting relatives in North Jersey. It was so unbelievable. It was so traumatizing. We all just gasped when we heard. The next day all the men went to enlist." 

Patrolman Tom Peterson of the Woodbridge Police Department said he’s been coming to the Reo for over 21 years.

"This family has been nothing but great to us," Peterson said.

He said all the Woodbridge cops go to the Reo.

"The old guys bring the new guys," he said. "Even when there were other diners in town, the cops always came here."

Every work day, between 3:30 and 4 p.m., Peterson said he comes to the Reo to pick up five Cherry Cokes for the officers on desk duty. Peterson said he doesn’t remember when the tradition began, just that it’s been going on "for years."

"Sometimes we’ll call ahead," Peterson said, "but today we didn’t, and as soon as they saw me come in, I heard them call in the order ‘five Cherry Cokes.’ "

For a place as timeless as the Reo, sometimes the years can pass by without much notice.

Stacey Iorito, Old Bridge, has been a waitress at the Reo for the past seven months. She grew up in town and spent a lot of time at the Reo with her father.

"Every day my father and I came here. We always sat along the window. I always ate the Greek salad and my father would always eat my anchovies," she said.

Iorito doesn’t live in Woodbridge anymore, but now that she works there, she still comes to the Reo and, she said, she still eats the Greek salad.

Jeannie Koshensky has been a waitress at the Reo for 15 years.

But most customers know her by the name "Oh, Miss."

"It is funny that customers call every girl, ‘Oh, Miss’ to get her attention," Koshensky said. "One customer said to me, ‘You’re so nice you should wear your name tag,’ and he gave me a name tag that says, ‘Oh, Miss.’ So he named me."

Koshensky said now everyone calls her "Oh, Miss," including the other waitresses.

Sisters Katherine Kruszka of Woodbridge and Mary Danner of Fords have been coming to the Reo for over 40 years, they said.

Danner said she comes to the diner every morning for breakfast.

"Every morning I start work at 7 a.m. and I’m here at 6," she said.

The sisters said their whole family, which included seven brothers and one other sister, would meet every night in the Reo’s dining room for years.

"We all met here for supper every single night and we still meet every Saturday for breakfast," Kruszka said.

Danner said there was a time when she would come to the Reo for breakfast lunch and dinner.

"We may sound like we’re pouring it on thick, honey, but you can ask. We always come here," she said. "We’re old-timers here."

"Where would we meet if we didn’t meet here? Dunkin’ Donuts?" She joked. "We always say, ‘Meet me at the Reo.’"

Kostas assured that regulars will still be able to say "Meet me at the Reo" daily despite renovations because improvements will be done section by section.

"The renovations are going to be a good thing for Woodbridge," Likakis said. "Everybody needs a face lift once in a while."