Voula’s recipe includes tasty food, loyal customers, and even Drake

Apr 15, 2023, 8:15 AM | Updated: 8:27 am

A vintage mural, dating to 1958 and depicting what was at that time, the proposed Ship Canal Bridge, decorates the main dining room at Voula’s Offshore Café on Lake Union. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) The Vlahos family began operating the breakfast and lunch café in September 1984; its named for founder Voula Vlahos, who’s now retired. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) Voula’s was founded by Voula Vlahos in 1984; her sons Nikos (left) and Sikey are running the popular spot these days. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) Voula’s is known by some for the acres of hash browns which seem to always be cooking on the restaurant’s voluminous grill. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) 

 Detail from the 1958 dining room mural by artist Gene Buck. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) The restaurant was smaller and was known as Rose’s Café, and was an extension of a carpentry shop, when it was depicted by Gene Buck in the 1958 mural. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) The I-5 Ship Canal Bridge dominates the view to the west of Voula’s. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)

An old-school diner along the north side of the Ship Canal is still going strong with a distinctive recipe of tasty breakfasts and lunches, family ownership, loyal local customers, and a surprisingly devoted national fan base. It’s also got a fair amount of local history on the menu, which is another great reason to pay a visit to Voula’s.

Voula’s was founded on Sept. 11, 1984, by a Greek immigrant named Voula Vlahos. She came to Seattle in the 1970s and worked in a few restaurants, but eventually wanted her own place. That’s why she bought what was then called the Offshore Café. Voula is now retired, but her sons, Nikos and Sikey, are running the place these days.

The café does have something of a national following now, but what’s most intriguing about Voula’s is how old-school it still is at its heart.

Best of all, it wasn’t that long ago that it was really old school.

For instance, for many years, Voula’s started serving breakfast every day at 6 a.m. In order to be ready to serve guests at that hour, Voula, Sikey, and an employee would have to be at the restaurant by 5 a.m. to get everything ready – make the coffee, warm up the grill, and prepare the other fresh ingredients required to serve all kinds of variations of eggs, hash browns, pancakes, and other dishes.

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That other employee there early every morning in those years was a retired schoolteacher from Alaska named Frances, who everyone called “Grandma.”  It was Grandma who helped solve a long-ago problem that came about when a big construction project was underway nearby about 30 years ago.

Workers on that big project, building a new UW print shop, began showing up at Voula’s every weekday morning not long after 5 a.m. They saw the lights on and could see Voula, Sikey, and Grandma working away. The workers were hungry, and they wanted to be served.

But it took an hour for the big grill to warm up. Plus, Voula, Sikey, and Grandma were busy trying to get everything ready. So, for those hungry workers, Voula’s just wasn’t ready to serve yet.

So, that’s when Grandma came up with a solution that involved making a big pot of coffee at 5 a.m. and laying in a daily supply of donuts from the old Langendorf Bakery.

“A lot of the truck drivers would show up, and they’d start demanding stuff,” Nikos told KIRO Newsradio. “So Grandma [said], ‘Hey, you can come in. Go ahead, grab a donut and coffee, and sit down and wait till Mom has the grill hot.

“Back then, it was just Mom and Sikey in the morning. And so it was like … just wait till everything’s hot, then we’ll take care of you,” Nikos continued. “And so we just kept it going, you know.”

They even had a sign explaining the pre-6 a.m. donut and coffee options. A certain radio historian recalled seeing that sign before the pandemic but never actually being up early enough to join in the early morning ritual, which has since been sunsetted.

The history of hungry workers patronizing a restaurant at that location predates the Vlahos family. The building was originally a cabinetmaker’s shop run by a guy named Wayne Moore. Back in the late 1950s, Sikey Vlahos said Moore decided to expand the shop’s footprint and the nature of the business at that location.

Rose’s was the original setting for Voula’s

“He just laid it out like a restaurant. Built it like a restaurant and had an office space on the other side,” Sikey Vlahos told KIRO Newsradio, pointing across the busy dining room. “And then, at the time, a gal took over the place and started the restaurant, and it was called Rose’s.”

But the gal’s name was not Rose, Sikey Vlahos says.

“The reason why it was called Rose’s is because it’s right off of Pasadena Place,” Sikey said, naming the not-very street-like street where Voula’s now stands. “Rose’s on Pasadena,” in honor of the home of the Rose Bowl.

The name “Rose’s” is still visible on the miniature version of the Voula’s building, seen on a fascinating and very colorful mural on the wall in the main dining room. It was painted in 1958 by Gene Buck, a local artist, and man-about-town who Sikey Vlahos said was one of the early customers at Rose’s on Pasadena.

The mural, which retains its vibrant colors nearly seven decades on, imagines the Ship Canal Bridge about five years before it was actually built while showing the names of several businesses in that neighborhood that were there 65 years ago. There are also countless whimsical nods to the neighborhood and other hidden visual delights which could keep the right person occupied for a good half-hour.

The old cabinet shop is on the mural, too, but the business itself is long gone. Wayne Moore sold the Vlahos family the building a long time ago, and that neighborhood – which is sort of in between the University District and Wallingford – has changed a lot since the sign out front said Rose’s back in the 1950s.

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Nikos Vlahos says the area has also changed a lot since his mom founded Voula’s in the 1980s.

“It was very working class,” Nikos said. “You had basically all the boat workers down the street. You had a bunch of live-aboard [boat] people. It was a lot different.”

You can see the difference in the customer wardrobes, too, Nikos says.

“Back then, it was all flannel and jeans, whereas now it’s slacks and khakis,” Nikos continued, chuckling. “But it’s been a nice evolution. When we first moved down here, this was basically all dirt parking lots around us. It was a big dust bowl down here.

“Everything around us was dirt, so it’s kind of nice to just see buildings and streets,” he said.

Population density is a good thing for Voula’s

The disappearance of that dirt and the rise of all those buildings – the kind of change that gets some Seattleites all riled up these days – is actually a good thing for a business like Voula’s. The density coming to the U-District and all along Pacific Avenue between that neighborhood and Fremont means more potential slacked or khakied customers for Voula’s. And, since they own their real estate, the family is not at the mercy of a landlord eager to cash in and build something new.

Publicity is also good for Voula’s – especially, said Sikey Vlahos, from a certain bleach-blonde spikey-haired cable TV star named Guy Fieri.

“We were very fortunate to be featured on ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives’ in 2007. It wasn’t even a show yet. It was the pilot,” Sikey said. “They came down here on May 5, 2007, and filmed for two days.

“We got to become really good friends with him and continue to be so,” Sikey said, crediting Fieri with creating a new revenue stream for Voula’s. “And that catapulted us to a different nationwide stage. We’ve done almost 20 [episodes] since then.

“He supports us,” Sikey said. “It’s been great.”

Thus, along with a steady stream of locals for going on 40 years, Voula’s has also had about 15 years – not counting the pandemic – of a bonus stream of customers visiting from all over North America to sample their famous “Greek Hobo” and other breakfast and lunch delights.

That kind of fame also means the occasional celebrity and special openings beyond their typical morning and afternoon hours.

Celebrities have caught wind of Voula’s

Like the time when Canadian rapper Drake – the “you used to call me on my cellphone” guy – showed up.

“[He] came in with his entourage one afternoon,” Sikey said. “At the moment, I did not know who he was, [but] my brother was very familiar with him.”

“I opened the door and I knew right away who it was,” Nikos added.

“That was very, very stunning,” Sikey continued. “He basically came by as a referral, and we were summoned to open the restaurant” for what was, essentially, a private VIP event.

Is this VIP service at Voula’s available to anyone? Well, not really.

“Yeah, we’ll take care of you, absolutely,” Sikey said, laughing.

“If you have our number, then you’re in,” Nikos added.

On the local celebrity front, Nikos and Sikey said that, as far as they know, Macklemore has not yet visited Voula’s. (Mr. Haggerty, if you’re reading this, why not consider Voula’s as a location for an upcoming video? Seems like a no-brainer!)

From their big smiles and the easy laughs as they share stories, brothers Nikos and Sikey are clearly enjoying themselves. She wasn’t there the day KIRO Newsradio visited, but their mom Voula still comes in, and is still close with many of their longtime customers.

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There’s so much news lately of longtime Seattle area establishments closing down for one reason or another, so the news from Voula’s – that there is no news – is refreshing. Fortunately, Sikey Vlahos, who’s in his late 50s, said, thanks to their customers, they’ve got at least a couple more decades to go in the Voula’s business down under the Ship Canal Bridge on Pasadena Place.

“We owe everything to our loyal customers,” Sikey said, pointing to the past 39 years as well as to the more recent struggles of the pandemic. “The support was unbelievable. Amazing. When it initially happened, the lockdown, and the outpouring of customer support was huge, and it kept us going. It really did.”

I’m serious, Macklemore! Get down there!

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.

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Voula’s recipe includes tasty food, loyal customers, and even Drake