by Charles McGuigan
When Jimmy came out of the kitchen, just as the lunch rush was winding down, he mopped his forehead with a dry terry cloth bar towel, and as he tucked the towel back into his pocket, he saw a woman who made his heart skip a beat. She was absolutely beautiful. Dark brown eyes, olive complexion, and a smile spread across her face that radiated sheer joy. He thought of the line “the face that launched a thousand ship,” and was determined to find out this woman’s name.
“It was absolutely love at first sight,” says Jimmy Tsamouras, recollecting the moment he first saw the woman who would later become his wife. That was back when Jimmy and his brother Dean owned Barrister’s Café in the John Marshall Hotel.
“I was having lunch at his restaurant with a mutual friend, though Jimmy and I didn’t know each other at the time,” Daniella Tsamouras remembers. “I was dating somebody else, at the time, and that relationship ended, and shortly thereafter Jimmy showed up.”
“It started with a big bang,” Jimmy tells me. “Then we began talking and we had a lot of things in common, and then we started dating. A couple years later, it was time to do something. Get married.”
We’re sitting at the bar of Demi’s Mediterranean Kitchen on MacArthur Avenue, one of the three businesses the couple owns. Along with Demi’s, there’s Spa 310—a full-service medical spa over in Carytown—and just across the street from Demi’s, a little to the north, is Dot’s Back Inn, which the Tsamouras’s bought from Cookie Giannini a little over a decade ago.
By the time the pair decided to tie the knot, Jimmy owned the very successful Southern Culture Restaurant where Daniella ran the front of the house. A month before the wedding a fire swept through Southern Culture and pretty much gutted the place. Even the mosaic mirrors by Anastasia Konstant that graced the walls on the second floor walls were shattered and blackened, warped and fused, beyond recognition. The fire had apparently been started by a careless smoker in a second-floor bathroom.
“It was devastating,” says Jimmy.
Daniella nods. “You couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she says. “But we did get married, and I’m so much happier we’re not working till four o’clock in the morning. We have such a better life nowadays than I think we would have had if we had kept up a Fan bar and restaurant.”
Even back then, Jimmy possessed a wealth of restaurant knowledge, the capital earned from years of education and experience. His family used to own the College Deli in Williamsburg, and he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, New York back in 1992. He honed his skills as a master chef in Hawaii, Scottsdale, New York, Hilton Head, and throughout Virginia.
A few years after the fire, back in 2007, the Tsamouras’s bought Dot’s Back Inn from Cookie Giannini, who had started the iconic neighborhood cantina 16 years earlier. At the time of the purchase, Jimmy made an oath to Cookie, and he honored it.
“His pledge to Cookie was that he would maintain the integrity of her vision,” says Daniella. “He was not going to turn it into a high-end fancy restaurant. The neighborhood was concerned because Jimmy’s a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and they were afraid he would come in and change the concept and he gave his word that he wouldn’t.”
While retaining the essence of Dot’s, Jimmy also enhanced the restaurant. “The first thing we did was improve the ticket time, how long it takes you to get your food,” he says. “The second thing we did is I cross-utilized a lot of things. I made the menu bigger, gave people more choices without buying more products. Cookie had three or four burgers on the menu, and there were a lot of other things that we had in-house that we could add to the burgers just to make them different and just give people more variety.”
Jimmy expanded seafood specials on the daily menu. “Because I love seafood,” says the chef. “I would make things for myself and people were like, ‘What’s that?’ And I would make it for them, and then I started putting it on the special board. For example: Tuna with a Thai chili lime sauce, salmon with a sun-dried tomato relish, fried catfish with remoulade, grilled swordfish with lemon-caper butter, and scallops with a bourbon brown butter. We always try to have two meats, and about four or five seafood specials. We always have the ribeye, and that’s something that Cookie always used to have.”
About a year after Jimmy took over Dot’s, the restaurant was featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives”, hosted by Guy Fieri. “The great thing about that show is that at the time everyone—food stars, chefs and stuff like that—were all going to places that were unattainable by the average person, but Guy did brought food places that were more attainable for your average middle-class people.”
Not long after the fire at Southern Culture, Daniella felt a burning desire to change her career trajectory. “I was feeling a little unfulfilled and I was working for other people after the fire,” she says. Then one day when she was thumbing through the classifieds, she saw an ad for an aesthetics school, and that lit a fire in her skull.
“I plowed through, finished at the top of my class,” she says.
But because she had no experience or clientele, no one wanted to hire her. “So that just drove me into starting my own business,” says Daniella. So, at about the same time Jimmy took over Dot’s Back Inn, Daniella launched her own business.
“I started the spa in November 2006,” Daniella says. “Pretty much within a couple months we had two new businesses.”
“We were both very busy,” says Jimmy. “We didn’t see each other very often unless she came into Dot’s to see me. I was always in Dot’s from 8 am till midnight.”
As Daniella prepared to open her business, she sought counsel from older business owners. One of them told her, “Well, the first thing you’ve got to do is register your business name with the courts.”
Almost immediately after hearing that, Daniella was in the John Marshall Courts building talking with a clerk there.
“I want to register my business,” she told the clerk.
“Well what’s the name of the business?”
Daniella didn’t actually have a name for the business yet, but she knew it was going to be a spa, and she and Jimmy happened to be living at 310 Colonial Avenue at the time.
“So twelve years later we are still Spa 310,” Daniella says.
Daniella’s first location was a modest, three-room suite in an office building on Thompson Street.
“I was there for about a year,” she says. “I started to figure out the nuances of being a new business owner. After that I moved to Robinson Street where I rented a studio.” She was building her business at that point, hired her first employee there, and a year later moved to her current location in Carytown.
Today, Spa 310 has thirteen employees, including two aestheticians, three nurses, a medical director, four cosmetologists and two ancillary staff.
“To be a medical spa you have to have a physician oversee the practice,” she says. “We do anti-aging services. We do everything from lasers to fillers, from Botox to blowout, and we’re working with some modalities that require a medical license so we work under the physician. We do hair removal, vein abrasion, CoolSculpting, laser tattoo removal. We do air color, we do natural nails. We do everything.”
Throughout the time she’s owned Spa 310, Daniella has constantly studied in her chosen field. ”I have my master’s in aesthetics,” she says. “And I’ve done extensive post-graduate studies from Denver to Boston to New York. Studying skin.”
When she was pregnant seven years ago, Daniella was appointed to the Virginia Board of Barbers and Cosmetology. She has served under three governors.
“We act as a kind of judiciary panel,” says Daniella. “The main focus of board members is to protect the safety and welfare of the population, and to provide avenues for people to work in.”
About two years ago, Daniella had heard rumors that the owners of the property her spa sits on was going to be sold. Last year, she and the other tenants there were officially notified.
So Daniella began to look. She contacted an old family friend, a man who is like a second father to her.
“I reached out to Augie Lange and I said, ‘We need to find a new space,’” Daniella says. “It took us about nine months to find a space. It was the last space we looked at, and Augie helped to broker that deal.”
That new space at 3200 square feet is 1200 square feet larger than the spa’s current location. “It’s at 5610 Patterson Avenue in Post Office Square,” says Daniella.
They’ve just begun building out the new space, and plan to move in some time this October. Daniella suspects the new location, with its expanded square footage, will be ideal for Spa 310. “People are living longer,” she says. “They’re in the workforce longer, they want to look younger. You look good, you feel good. It’s not vanity; it’s maintenance. That’s our tagline.”
From our vantage point at the bar, actually from pretty much any location in the restaurant, the massive mosaic of a mati tree begs a look, and its scores of watchful, cobalt blue, evil eyes demand more than a passing glance. Matiasmas, or evil eyes, are talismans of a sort, made of glass with a pupil, surrounded by white, and an outer ring of cobalt blue. In many Mediterranean countries, these amulets have been employed since time in memorial to ward off evil spirits.-
This iconic image of a tree bursting with matiasmas was a joint effort of Daniella and her sister-in-law, Angie Blankenship, both of whom studied art in college.
Before Demi’s opened, Daniella approached Angie.
“I want to make mosaics for the restaurant,” she told her.
“I don’t know anything about mosaics,” Angie said.
“You don’t need to know,” Daniella told her. “We’ll figure it out.”
So Daniella contracted a Turkish glass-blower to create two hundred evil eyes, which would become part of the mosaics she and her sister-in-law would make. But those were just some of the finishing touches. There had been a lot more to do.
Daniella remembers that time vividly. It was Halloween and when Jimmy arrived home that night he had news.
“I bought a restaurant today,” he said.
“And think I said, ‘I’m going to divorce you,’” Daniella says. “And then a week later, after I had time to process it, I said, ‘I think I’m in a positon now where I’d like to be part of this project. We haven’t done a project together in over ten years.’ And I think that’s what he (Jimmy) really was waiting to hear that I was going to get on board. So he’s like, ‘Great, here are the keys. And you’ve got a five thousand dollar budget. Go.’ And I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do with five thousand dollars?’”
Creativity, hard work, and lot of know-how, enabled her to pull it off. They opened January 5, just two months later. One of the biggest projects to tackle was the abundance of pale blonde tongue-and-groove boards throughout the dining room. Daniella drew on skills she had learned from her step-father when she was still a teenager. “I worked on painting crews for him, and he taught me how to faux-finish wood,” she says. “And that’s what I did for about a month in the evenings. I was in here pickling all this wood.”
“I think Daniella had the vision of keeping things clean and simple, nothing that’s going to stand out,” says Jimmy.
“That’s right,” she says. “We wanted modern and crisp and clean. And Jimmy didn’t want a Greek restaurant, he wanted a restaurant to encompass all flavors of the Mediterranean.”
The restaurant’s name, of course, honors their seven-year old daughter, Dimitri, whom her parents call Demi. Which is as it should be because this Mediterranean kitchen is truly a marriage of Jimmy and Daniella Tsamouras. As in all good marriages, they have their separate lives in Dot’s Back Inn and Spa 310, but come evening they are reunited under one roof at Demi’s. And each day is filled to the max.
“Tuesday through Saturdays I’m at the spa,” says Daniella. “I’m there between 8 and 8:30 every day, and then leave by two and run errands, spend an hour with Demi, and I’m here between four and five depending on the day. I’m in the front of the house five nights a week.”
“My day starts off at eight o’clock,” Jimmy says. “l go check on Dot’s , check on this place, just kind of get all my ducks in a row. From that point I’ll do all my ordering, and my food menu items, start prepping food, run around, go to Restaurant Depot, Sam’s Club, the bank, the accountant’s office, and make a pit stop in to see my daughter. Then usually by two o’clock I’m full-time in the kitchen for the night.”
Being seasoned business owners, the Tsamouras understand the need for hiring the right people.
“We have amazing staff,” says Daniella.
“That’s the secret to any good business,” Jimmy says. “Having good employees and employees that care about their business and care about their jobs, care about what they do, and how they do things.”
“I think we also lead by example,” Daniella adds. “I mean we’re here in the trenches with them every day.”
They consider the other ingredients for a good business model, and Jimmy mentions the almost overnight success of Demi’s. “We had an idea of what the projected numbers were going to be and they were modest,” he says. “And then, with the support of the neighborhood and good press, it exceeded our expectations.“
“We have customers who come here from all over Richmond,” says Daniella. “Even though Northside is definitely our anchor, people come from all over. You name it Southside, Hanover.”
“We have a couple that comes in every Saturday night from Chesdin Landing,” Jimmy says. “What goes on here, what makes Demi’s special, is the love and care and devotion. When people come in they get a warm feeling.”
“It starts from being greeted at the front door,” says Daniella. “Our hostesses always open the door for people, and take their coats.”
And across the street at Dot’s Back Inn, there is also that sense of welcome. “I think Dot’s caters to just about everybody and anybody,” Jimmy says.
“White collar, blue collar, no collar,” Daniella adds. “That’s what’s so amazing about Dot’s; it’s so diverse. Dot’s really speaks to what Richmond is.”
Jimmy and Daniella have worked in the restaurant industry, in one capacity or other, most of their adult lives.
‘We were both raised up in the restaurant business, and we say we’re old school,” says Daniella. “We’ve always worked in restaurants.”
And it goes deeper than that.
When Daniella’s ancestors arrived from Naples, Italy, four generation ago, her great-grandfather opened restaurants in Richmond—one in Shockoe Bottom, another on Church Hill. Jimmy’s grandparents, after they emigrated from Greece, opened restaurants in Clifton Forge. “It’s in our blood,” Daniella says.
Flanking the door frame into the kitchen are an array of icons, saints venerated by the various Eastern Churches—Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and so on. Among these icons hanging on the wall is one of Saint Euphrosynos, patron saint of cooks. The others are patron saints of famers and servers, and other intercessors related to restaurants. The Tsmouras’s daughter, Demi, attends parochial school, and the family belongs to Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral. “Without faith,” says Daniella, “you ain’t got nothing.”
We move away from the bar over to the large mati tree mosaic. “The tree represents life and community and family,” Daniella says of the mosaic. “And that’s really we felt the Northside really encompasses. We are very community-minded.”
To that end, for five years, Dot’s hosted a golf tournament that benefitted FeedMore, and the Tsmouras’s are always involved with National Night Out, Christmas on MacArthur and the Holton Harvest Festival.
Spa 310 has done events with Safe Harbor, which offers shelter from the storms of domestic violence and abuse. The spa also support SCAN, whose mission is to prevent and treat child abuse and neglect.
“And we’re huge supporters of all the community schools, especially those surrounding our businesses,” says Daniella. “And we try to help as many churches as we can in our communities.”
They do this all for a couple simple reasons.
“You always like to help people,” Jimmy says.
“And we’ve also been in positions before in our life when we’ve needed help,” says Daniella. “You have to pay it forward. Bottom line. We’ve lost restaurant businesses before, so we know what it’s like to struggle.”
Under the most ideal circumstances, marriage can be a difficult proposition. Daniella and Jimmy Tsamouras have learned to balance work with family life, and have been able to put it all in an un-sugarcoated perspective.
“We love each other,” Daniella says. “But we really like each other, too.”
“We’ve been through a lot together and we’ve had a lot of ups and downs,” says Jimmy. “We’ve been very passionate and dedicated. I think, if you’re married and you believe you’re never going to argue or fight or anything, it’s very unrealistic. And if you take things and blow them out of proportion and try to become a victim, I don’t think that really works either.”
“We love hard, we fight hard, we play hard, and we work hard,” Daniella says.
Demi’s Mediterranean Kitchen
Tuesday through Thursday, 5pm-10pm; Friday and Saturday, 5pm-11pm; Sunday, 5pm-9pm
4017 MacArthur Avenue
Richmond, VA 23227
Tuesday, 10-8; Wednesday and Thursday, 9-8; Friday, 9-7; Saturday, 9-4
3500 West Cary Street
Richmond, VA 23221
Dot’s Back Inn
Monday through Saturday 9 am-Midnight; Sunday 10-3
4030 MacArthur Avenue
Richmond, VA 23227