Things to Do

Bob Townsend, For the AJC

All in the Family.

Pano Karatassos and Buckhead Life’s remarkable legacy of restaurants

When Pano’s & Paul’s opened in Buckhead in 1979, business partners Pano Karatassos and Paul Albrecht thought of it as a neighborhood bistro.

But it soon morphed into a landmark of casually sophisticated fine dining, with a softly lit ambiance and velvety decor, strong drinks in a clubby bar, impeccable service driven by Karatassos, and Albrecht’s revved-up versions of continental classics, like jumbo lump crab cocktail, filet mignon and the signature fried lobster tails.

What’s morePano’s & Paul’s had a way of charming well-to-do and well-connected Atlantans, along with visiting sports figures, actors and other celebrities. And though it closed in 2009 after a deal to relocate to the nearby St. Regis Hotel fell through, it remains the historic flagship of what would later become Karatassos’ greatest success, the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group.

At 83, Karatassos retains the title of founder and CEO. He maintains a regular schedule at the Buckhead Life offices above the Atlanta Fish Market on West Paces Ferry Road in Buckhead. And his canny philosophy of hospitality still guides the company: “Running a restaurant isn’t a big thing, it’s just a thousand little things.”

But Karatassos’ two sons have taken over the everyday operations, with Niko Karatassos serving as president and Pano I. Karatassos as corporate executive chef.

Remarkably, for all the changes in the Atlanta dining scene over the past four decades, the Karatassos’ currently own and operate eight restaurants in close proximity around Buckhead, including Atlanta Fish Market, Bistro Niko, Buckhead Diner, Chops Lobster Bar, Corner Cafe, Kyma, Pricci and 103 West.

Then there’s the wholesale Buckhead Bread Co., an in-house seafood distributor and a Chef Pano line of Greek food products. Beginning in 2007, the group expanded into Florida with Chops Lobster Bar and City Fish Market in Boca Raton, and Lobster Bar Sea Grille in Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach.

“I was of the opinion when I was coming up in the business that if you can master fine dining, you would have nothing to worry about, because not just anybody can step in and do that level of professional service,” Karatassos said one afternoon, perched at a small round table at Buckhead Life. “If you put me in a casual place, I would probably fail. But you put me in a fine dining place, I could hang with most of the good ones.

“Well guess what? Casual took over the industry. But for me, it’s all about the details. I was brought up in that business, and I worked at places like the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, and then the Everglades Club in Palm Beach, Florida. So you’re surrounded by quality, and it encompasses you, and it becomes second nature.”

Greek roots

Originally from a tight-knit Greek community in Savannah, where his father ran a restaurant and import food business, Karatassos served in the U.S. Navy before graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, in 1960.

Later, he managed the food and beverage services at the Lodge of the Four Seasons in Lake Ozark, Missouri, where he worked with Albrecht, before they decided to move to Atlanta and open a place of their own.

Asked if he ever thought he would own multiple restaurants in two different states, Karatassos’s answer was an emphatic “No.”

“Opening up a lot of restaurants just for the sake of opening up a lot of restaurants was never the plan,” he said. “It’s a tough thing to do. But I’m blessed to have the finest management team you could have.”

Sons Niko and Pano I. form the axis of the team, and that was always the plan, Karatassos said. They were required to work in the restaurants in their teenage years, and they both earned hospitality degrees from Florida Atlantic University.

The women of the Karatassos family have had a hand in the company, too. Daughter Anne also received her hospitality degree from Florida Atlantic University, opened and managed Corner Cafe and Buckhead Bread Company, and now oversees payroll and benefits for executive level employees. And besides watching over her husband and children, Georgia Karatassos worked in the offices for many years.

Pano I. followed in his father’s footsteps, moving to New York to train at the Culinary Institute of America. After that, he worked in the kitchens of three of the world’s greatest chefs — Eric Ripert, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Thomas Keller — before returning to Atlanta.

His cookbook, “Modern Greek Cooking: 100 Recipes for Meze, Entrees, and Desserts,” presents the dishes he honed at Kyma, Buckhead Life’s critically acclaimed Greek seafood restaurant.

“I was just a kid, about 8 years old when we moved to Atlanta,” Pano I. remembered, sitting at a table at Kyma one afternoon during family meal. “Niko and I would go in to Pano’s & Paul’s to see Dad, and what I remember is all the people that were coming there. It was unheard of. When we were older, I remember my dad calling us one day to tell my mom to dress us up and get us in the car to come meet Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan, who were having dinner together.”

Pano I. started cooking at Pano’s & Paul’s when he was 15.

“Every night there was like a Saturday night,” he said. “The addiction to cooking started early, and I never looked back. That was it. I loved cooking. I still get to be in a kitchen every night. I’m the executive chef of Kyma, and I help out from the corporate side. And Niko started getting into serving, which he loves, and then running the front of the house.”

Back at the Buckhead Life offices, Niko described the success of the company’s varied concepts as consistency within diversity.

“I think one of the core successes of the company is my father’s ability to first decide on a concept based on cuisine,” he said. “He always wants to do everything first class. But the restaurants are all different. Pricci is Italian. Chops is a prime steakhouse. Atlanta Fish Market is a huge seafood restaurant. Bistro Niko is French. Kyma is Greek Mediterranean.

“I think that’s one of the main reasons they’ve all lasted so long. It’s not hard to tell people what kind of food they’re going to be eating. But the most significant change was when he opened Buckhead Diner in 1986. He brought in Pat Kuleto, who designed San Francisco’s Fog City Diner, and it just sort of changed everything. It took the city by storm.”

Gerry Klaskala, the chef /co-owner of Aria, and the co-owner of Canoe, first came to Atlanta as the chef and managing partner of Buckhead Diner, which quickly became a hotspot for celebrities like Elton John, Jane Fonda, Ted Turner and Mohammed Ali.

“During my time there, it was like a celebrity restaurant, full of celebrities and everyone who worked there felt like a celebrity,” Klaskala recalled.

Karatassos brought other chefs to the city who also would change Atlanta’s restaurant scene and become culinary stars in their own right.

In 1996, Buckhead Life opened Nava, an innovative Southwestern restaurant perched at corner of Peachtree and Paces Ferry roads that turned into a see-and-be-seen destination, too. Kevin Rathbun was the opening chef, before becoming the corporate executive chef for Buckhead Life. Rathbun stayed on until 2004, when he left to open his eponymous restaurant, Rathbun’s, followed by Krog Bar, Kevin Rathbun Steak, and KR SteakBar.

“I learned a lot from Pano,” Rathbun said during a recent phone call. “He’s a great restaurateur, there’s no doubt about it. He’s quality-oriented, but he’s also very savvy. He knows how to make a restaurant work from the top up to the bottom down. He gave me the opportunity to do Nava, which was something really different for the city.”

With the coronavirus outbreak, Buckhead Life has had to make heartbreaking changes, including temporarily closing its restaurants. What will happen next is difficult to know. But one thing’s for sure. Buckhead Life restaurants have always been an important part of the community and its families.

“Pano’s & Paul’s was the place that everybody went to celebrate, to do business deals and to bring their families, and a lot of those kids, and a lot of those grandkids, we’re serving today,” Pano I. said. “It’s always been fun for me to walk out of the kitchen at Kyma, and go into the dining room, and meet people who want to tell me their story of growing up and going to Pano’s & Paul’s as a child. I still have people who tell me they wish it was still open.”

For his part, Karatassos is trying to make sure his family and his employees are keeping their chins up.

“These are tough times for our community and it is more important than ever for us as leaders to keep our spirits up so we can rally around our employees. My priority is our Buckhead Life family, which is made up of the absolute best and most passionate people in the restaurant industry,” Karatassos said. “They have made us who we are because of their dedication to true southern hospitality and unmatched work ethic. Our people need us more than ever and we are doing everything we can to ensure their well-being while making sure they have jobs to come back to once the crisis is over. While our restaurants are closed, we will be preparing meals for our staff and their families as long as we can. I know our Atlanta restaurant and hospitality industries will be stronger than ever when this crisis is over and we can get back to business.”