The names George and Antonios run through the Vasiliades family like the Aliakmonas River runs through Greece.
In 1958, at the Moonlight diner, there were two Greeks named George: the uncle who first came to America and his teenage nephew who’d landed in New York on a Greek passenger ship called the Olympia.
Soon Antonios sent back to Greece for his wife Calliope and the rest of their children: the older son named Bill and 12-year-old Maria.
[Antonios died in the mid-1990s at age 82. Calliope died in 2010 at age 95.]
Reunited in a big village called Baltimore, the Vasiliades family set up house in what is now Greektown, first on Newkirk Street and then Macon.
In the late Fifties, it was simply called “the Hill,” a section of East Baltimore near the old City Hospitals between the edge of Highlandtown and Dundalk.
Shoulder to shoulder with his father and uncle, George worked at the Moonlight from 1958 through 1965, often saving the 20 cent bus ride home from Broadway to Highlandtown by walking home in good weather.
Now 70, George twinkles at memories of the two hospitals the Moonlight served, Johns Hopkins and the long-defunct Church Home and Hospital, where Edgar Allan Poe breathed his last in 1849.
He took classes in English for a couple of months, worked his way up from dishwasher to short-order cook and, for awhile, smiled George, had a pretty nurse for a girlfriend.
In 1965, now in his early 20s, a confident young man well-acquainted with diner life, the nephew was ready to cut the tomato-stained apron strings of his uncle.
George the younger, though he never did any of the serious cooking at the Moonlight, set out on his own. A Greek who delivered roasted coffee in bulk to restaurants around the city took him aside one day.
“He says, ‘George, I have a place for you …”
The opportunity stood about a mile to the southeast, at the corner of a then-industrial Boston Street and a narrow lane called Van Lill, an area of lumberyards and piers of nearly-derelict work vessels called “bum boats.” The diner was owned by a Greek named Kalandros and he wanted to sell.
The original Sip & Bite was on the west side of Van Lill, which is where George started. A few years later it moved to its present location—2200 Boston Street—on the east side of Van Lill.
It was previously a bar called Muggins Boat House and the Vasiliades brothers bought the building for about $6,000. George and his brother and the employees walked all of the equipment across Van Lill street and had the grills going before you can say “pigs in a blanket.”
“In the early 60s I lived on the second floor of Muggins,” said Bonnie Hockstein, whose father, George T. Lennon, owned the joint. “I ate at the Sip and Bite every day. They had the best rice pudding and always saved an order for me and a slice of watermelon.”
George was told by Kalandros that the Sip & Bite made $1,700 in receipts a week, a damn good payday when you could get an egg sandwich for a quarter. To prove it, Kalandros let George run the register before a deal was made.
Kalandros stayed on long enough to teach George and his brother Bill to cook and then the Vasiliades boys were on their own.
Eggs and pancakes are one thing. A nice brisket—unless your grandmother’s name is Esther—is another.
"Every special is hard to learn if you don't know how,” said George. "We did quality so we never had leftovers. I made beef stew in a big pot, 20 gallons at a time. I used work breakfast and lunch, get off 3 o'clock in the afternoon, sleep a couple hours and come back to the grill."
The restaurant did well enough for George to return to his village in 1968, a successful man of 26 with a business in America, and propose to a young woman named Irene.
''I worked for my uncle for a few years and then I never work for anybody but myself—60 hours a week in here,'' said George. ''Anybody who works hard in this country can make it. You can become anything.''