‘Family.’’ That’s how Nick and Maria Koufos describe their customers at the Hidden Kitchen, a hole-in-the-wall diner in the South End. The proprietors seem to know everyone’s name and how clients like their food and take their coffee. In exchange, customers banter with the Koufoses and ask about their two grown children.
“Whoever comes in here, they’re family to us,’’ says Nick Koufos. He’s a big man with a wide grin. “I’m here just because I love people and they love us.’’
The Hidden Kitchen on Albany Street is more like a well-worn kitchen than restaurant. Koufos calls it a “Pop and Momma’’ spot, where quality and quantity trump flash. “If you don’t give good food, the customers don’t come back,’’ says the Greek-born restaurateur.
The biggest seller at breakfast is an egg and bacon sandwich. Lunch sees a high volume of chicken and Greek salad kebab wraps. Soup is homemade and changes daily. There are also steak sandwiches, veggie burgers, chicken Parm, subs, and more similar fare. Prices don’t top $7.95, which is what a fried haddock meal costs.
Customers marvel at the generous portions and quality. Sandwiches, for example, include so much ham or white meat turkey breast that some customers ask for half the amount. Olive oil for a lemon dressing comes from Greece and steak is hand-cut from beef tenderloin.
“Everything they make there is really, really good,’’ says Bruce Shaw, a customer, building neighbor, and president of the Harvard Common Press, which publishes cookbooks. Adds Bonnie Gossels, manager of the building, who leases space to the couple: “It’s fantastic. It’s definitely not gourmet food. It’s the opposite of nouvelle.’’
Nick Koufos, 56, moved here when he was 13 years old. His father was a cook and, after graduating from Watertown High School, Koufos became a professional cook. He is the former owner of the Victorian Restaurant in Melrose, which he says he sold to cut down on demands on his time.
If you’ve never been to the Hidden Kitchen or are returning to this favorite spot, you can tell you’re almost there from the aromas that greet you. The smell of bacon and other fried food fills the air outside the century-old former warehouse across from the Boston Flower Exchange. Tenants of the five-story building include architects, artists, and entrepreneurs. The diner is tucked in the first-floor entryway. A modern stainless steel stove and hood anchors the tight cooking area. Counters are forest green, walls are tiled gray, and a large white menu is mounted on a wall. There is seating for 10 at three wooden tables in the diner, and a table in the lobby.
Koufos arrives weekdays at 4 a.m. to begin prepping in a 350-square-foot work area near the restaurant. At 6 a.m., the diner opens and customers start streaming in. Maria Koufos shares cooking duties. Son Dennis, 19, works the register when he’s home from college, and keeps items stocked. The restaurant closes at 2:30 p.m. and is shuttered on weekends.
During the Big Dig, construction workers were the predominant customers. Now the balance includes MBTA employees, firefighters, police officers, students at nearby Boston University School of Medicine, and professionals working in the area.
The Koufoses, who plan to operate the diner for another 10 years, don’t advertise or have a website. Dennis Koufos has given up efforts to have his parents post a menu online.
Shaw says the Koufoses are the “heart and soul of the building,’’ but Gossels says they are much more. “They are extraordinary ordinary people,’’ she says. “They came here with nothing and they built up this network of friendships - not just in the building but in the neighborhood.’’