By Bob Balgemann
When Tasso Costarides learned the White House was for sale, everything about the legendary eatery on Peachtree Road drew his interest: its history, the reputation of its food, and its importance as the place where so many of Buckhead’s movers and shakers stopped for a power breakfast.
So he bought it, along with the discussions of politics and the economy, and took it over Jan. 1 this year.
Costarides immerses himself in the day-to-day operations of the restaurant, which opened in 1948 and moved to its current location in Peachtree Plaza in 1974. Donning a white apron, he was busing tables one busy Saturday morning, saying: “I have a great crew. They’ve worked here for years and do a great job. If I can help out, I do.”
The White House, once formally known as the White House Diner, is open for breakfast and lunch.
It’s a place where “Southern food meets Greece,” said Costarides, who is of Greek heritage but was born here. There’s a Greek influence in the food, whether it’s a gyro omelet or a Greek salad.
The signature luncheon entree is the White House salad, which has hearts of palm, feta cheese and black olives. But you also can get a hamburger or a BLT.
Breakfast is served throughout its hours of operation, which are 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.
Over the years, political careers have been launched from its tables over breakfast and lunch, major business deals have been sealed with a meal and a handshake, and people’s careers have been shaped over coffee.
“The White House is the place you want to be seen if you want to be a factor in Buckhead business or politics,” said Albert Maslia, a prominent Buckhead merchant for years, confidant to political aspirants and now managing director of marketing for the Merchandise Mart in downtown Atlanta.
“You want to sit in a booth on the right side so you can be seen” when people enter the restaurant, not on the left, and never at the back table. “I only sat at the back table if I was with someone I didn’t want to be seen with.”
Maslia told the story of arranging a meeting with Michael Thurman when he was first running for state labor commissioner. Maslia suggested they meet at the White House. Thurman replied, “I am not really going to be in Washington next week.” Maslia told Thurman, “No, I mean the White House restaurant in Buckhead.” Mitch Skandalakis launched his successful 1993 campaign to become Fulton County Commission chairman at the White House, recalled Buckhead Coalition President Sam Massell, who is known as the unofficial mayor of Buckhead.
Massell frequents the White House just to have breakfast or lunch or to discuss business deals. But he never discusses whom he makes deals with or the nature of the business without getting the approval of the other party.
He does allow, however, that more than a few morsels of ideas that have shaped the Buckhead landscape came between bites of breakfast and lunch at the White House.
Peter Rooney met with the chairman of the board of Oglethorpe University at the restaurant and made his decision to accept the position of vice president for development and alumni relations at the school.
Since then, said Rooney, who also is president of the Buckhead Business Association (BBA), he visits the White House a couple of times a week, mostly for business meetings. Rooney said the executive committee of the BBA holds its meetings at the White House, and he often just likes to sit alone at the counter and read the newspaper.
Buckhead’s “captains of industry,” as Costarides refers to them, aren’t the only ones who have made the White House a habit over the years.
Take 78-year-old Marcus Cook. He and his friends have eaten there for more than 20 years.
“Usually Saturday mornings,” he said, seated in a booth next to a large window in the front of the rectangular restaurant. “I love this place.”
His friend James Odum, 84, simply said it’s “very good.”
Cook doesn’t see himself in legion with those who use the restaurant as a place to fashion important ideas and make key decisions.
“We’re little shots,” he said with a chuckle, referring to himself and Odum.
Chuck Meteer, seated on one of the stools at the counter, knows exactly what made the White House such a popular place: “They absolutely have the friendliest staff in town and the best decaf coffee in town.”
He said he discovered the restaurant about a year ago and eats there at least once a week.
Costarides didn’t disagree, especially regarding the people who work there.
“There’s not much turnover,” he said. “Some employees have been here more than a decade.”
He said the same is true for many of the customers, who come from all walks of life. They are individuals, couples, families, churchgoers after Sunday services and employees of Buckhead’s “massive retail section. I’ve been blessed with great regulars.”
Diners eat in booths, at the counter or around tables in the shadow of photographs of many former presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush.
There are two black-and-white drawings of the other White House, the one in Washington.
Over in a corner is a poster promoting Elvis Presley for president in 1976 as the Memphis American Party candidate, with Richard Nixon as his running mate.
It’s not all politics at the White House, however. In back, spread across an entire wall, are color photographs of Santorini, one of the most picturesque Greek islands.
So far, it has been smooth sailing for Costarides, who purchased the restaurant from Demosthenes Galaktiadis, a Greek native who worked in 1968 at the White House and bought it in 1970.
Costarides summed up the White House: “Great crew, great clientele, great food.”