Konstadinos Tasiopoulos was 15 in 1960 when he stepped off the shore of Greece and onto the deck of a 130,000 ton oil tanker bound for the Persian Gulf.
Fifty-eight years later, he’s in Sonora as the owner of the long-standing Sonora restaurant, Gus’s Steakhouse.
“The people here, they remind me of where I was born in Greece. There were the foothills, gold, ships, cows, donkeys, pigs and chickens, the countryside,” said Konstadinos, known by all his friends and patrons as Gus.
“It’s been a hard life, but I love people and I’ve never been afraid to work. I told my wife, work comes first.”
Gus, 73, tapped his wedding ring on the table, lifted a hand to his black fisherman’s cap, smiled and gestured to the restaurant.
“My customers are important, the people. You come here, and if I see your empty breadbasket, I’m going to fill it up,” he said.
Forty years ago, Gus was a restaurateur in Bay Area when he noticed a building advertised in The Mercury News classifieds. The price was $300,000 for the building, a liquor license and the French restaurant occupying the space, Charlamagne.
Then in his early 30s, Gus decided to stake his claim in the Mother Lode and opened Sonora Joe’s, the first of his restaurants to fill the building where Gus’s now resides.
Though the place has had a few different operators over four decades, for the most part, Gus has always owned the building or played some role in whatever restaurant stood there.
“I love Sonora, I love Tuolumne County. The people here, they’re very humble. And things were very, very different back then,” Gus said.
Gus was born in 1945 in the southern Greek town of Kalamata, one of eight children of his father, George, and his mother — his namesake — Konstadina.
When he left home, he didn’t know he was destined to settle in the United States. He was young, he said, and eager to set out on the journey of his life.
“I went to sea to make money and guess what, the money was not great,” Gus said.
He worked ship maintenance and painted the boat and deck during the next few years as the gigantic cargo vessel circled the globe from Libya to the California coast.
The ship, Gus said, was about the size from “here to Carl’s Jr.” — approximately 500 ft. across.
Outside of their next stop, Japan, a gigantic Pacific Ocean typhoon wave knocked Gus out on the deck and he broke four fingers. He was saved by his crew members, who found him tied to safety on the rails.
The ship left Japan without him while he was treated for eight days in a hospital. He took an airplane to New York, then traveled to Delaware where he caught the vessel on its way to Caracas, to Aruba, and then back to the Persian Gulf.
“We were spinning around the world,” he said.
From there, they went back to Japan and onward to Martinez, accessible from the Pacific Ocean via San Francisco and the San Pablo Bay.
As the oil tanker lurched toward America, Gus and his crewmate decided to jump ship in the dead of night.
Gus was 18. He and his friend spoke no English and had $110 between them.
What else could he do, Gus said, but take a job washing dishes in an American restaurant?
Pete Kouretas, a San Jose restaurateur who owned Miller’s Steakhouse, Zorba’s Restaurant and a few other places, was from Tripoli, in Libya, Gus said. As fate would have it, Pete Kouretas’ wife was from Kalamata.
“They were like family to me. Pete was like my father. He was a workaholic, but he loved me too. I miss him, God bless him,” Gus said. “This is where it all started for me in the restaurant business.”
Gus washed dishes at the 24-hour Miller’s Steakhouse (he worked the night shift and was called “Leo” to avoid detection by immigration officials) alongside five Mexican coworkers. He worked his way up to line cook, sizzling ham, eggs and other diner fare on a flat top grill.
He learned to speak English at a San Jose movie theater, spending 50 cents a film to see John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Michael Landon in westerns.
Within five years, Gus became a United States citizen.
“I’ve done everything in my life, I’ve been all over the world. Now, it was time to get married,” he said.
He married Loula, a friend of his sister, in 1969. In May, they celebrated their 50th anniversary.
With his first son, Dino, born in 1970, Gus was ready to break into the restaurant business on his own.
He opened the Square Meal Cafe — a little truck stop restaurant in San Martin — but very quickly transferred ownership to his brother-in-law. He and a partner bought Paul’s BBQ, an Italian restaurant in San Jose, for $12,000 and operated it from 1972 to 1977. He moved on to Ted's Big Boy restaurant in San Jose and then to the Town Plaza Restaurant and Gilroy Inn, both in Gilroy, before moving the family to Sonora.
His son, Theodore, was born in 1975.
“Restaurants are hard work, but it’s good eating and a good way to raise your family. All you have to do is have the drive. I did it,” he said.
Gus’s Steakhouse was dubbed with its name in 1997, following short stints as Sonora Joe’s, Ozzie’s and while Gus and his son opened Dino’s Steakhouse in Lodi.
Throughout its different iterations, Gus built up a steady clientele of locals who shared in his social clubs and who appreciated a warm conversation over the dinner table.
“When you’re here, you didn’t have to worry for not being helped,” Gus said.
He lives in Oakdale with his wife, who likes to be close to a Greek Orthodox church in Modesto. At home, she cooks traditionally — lamb, pastitsio and dolmas. But while at the restaurant, Gus, Dino and their family will still eat steaks and all the trimmings the restaurant offers.
“It’s been like this since day one. It’s important to make sure it’s a family place. My dad built this place up so much that I want to continue it,” said Dino, 49.
As he nudges toward semi-retirement, Gus plans to be around the restaurant a little less often. Sometimes, he’s in the restaurant greeting, eating and chatting five days a week. Next year, Dino said, that might diminish to two or three days a week.
But if Gus has his way — and he usually does — his namesake restaurant will stick around long after he’s gone.
“This place isn’t going anywhere. Gus’s Steakhouse is always going to be here,” Gus said.