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April 5, 2012 at 6:00 AM

Vios evolves (can a restaurant be too kid-friendly?)

Thomas at Vios2.jpg

Vios won’t be giving up its status as the city’s most kid-friendly eatery anytime soon, but owner Thomas Soukakos hopes to make it a little calmer and quieter for tot-free tables too.

By mid-April, the dining room at the fine Greek restaurant on Capitol Hill will replace one of its communal tables with booths, and will have a glass partition separating the popular kids play area from the rest of the restaurant. (The partition will stop about a foot short of the ceiling, so don’t look for complete soundproofing.)

Soukakos, who opened Vios (“life”) with the intention of making a family-friendly, community restaurant after tragedy left him as a single father, said customers wanted some alternative to sitting at a communal table, and that the space was too open and “getting a little bit too much at times,” to the point where kid-free diners weren’t always comfortable. (“Note with joy or be warned” about the play area, as one review put it) Or, as a Yelper wrote, “If you do NOT have children and are easily irritated by the little monsters yelling and running around, do NOT go to this place.”

Parents felt fine leaving their children to entertain themselves while eating on the other side of the restaurant, and kids would run back and forth from table to toys. Now parents and kids will be more likely to all be in the same section, Soukakos said, “helping us to help them” while keeping with his original goals to welcome everyone.

The partition isn’t the only evolution in store for Vios, a place I love for its mezze plates and pita-wrapped lamb souvlaki as much as its well-stocked toy bins.

In May, Soukakos will also be doubling the size of the Capitol Hill retail and to-go area, stocking a variety of Mediterranean olive oils, imported pistachios, honey, and chocolates, wines, and other eats and drinks. He’ll have fresh baked goods and soups joining the to-go offerings, bread from Columbia City Bakery, and gelato from Fainting Goat. And, starting April 21, the restaurant will offer weekend brunch. On the menu: Scrambles and Benedicts, Israeli shakshuka, homemade yogurt and semolina waffles, and more.

Soukakos is excited about the retail space. “I love olive oil. I come from a region in the Peloponnese that is a very high-producing oil region,” he said. He wants to open a tasting area so people can try out the varieties, learning “how it tastes, how to use it, how often to use it, and so forth.”

Brunch was a tougher decision for him. He’s again happily married, his son Alexander is now 10, and he wants to keep a sane work-life balance. “We have put our lives in a good place, so I have to be cautious with that,” he said. But if the restaurant is going to add the weekend brunch, “I need to be a part of it,” he said, even with a good staff.

“I want to help them carry on, I don’t want them to do it for me.”

And, after eight years running Vios, he decided it was time for some creative changes. “We evolved, just like life evolves and our experience has evolved.” One thing hasn’t changed after 8 years: He’s so happy with the restaurant’s warm reception.

“I love what I’m doing, there’s never a question about that…” he said. “We’re happy to be here and glad to be here and we love our community.”

P.S.: So I mentioned the Vios changes to one of my most kid-loving pals, one who has nannied and who voluntarily spends days entertaining nieces and nephews, and she thought it was good news. She’s a fan of the food, but said she tends to go only for weekday lunches, when the volume and energy are tolerable. Is it possible that a restaurant loved for welcoming kids could welcome them too much? Or do people only feel that way if no one in their party would deeply appreciate a toy dinosaur or set of alphabet blocks?

Photo: Thomas Soukakos, photographed at his smaller Ravenna location (where the play area is far inferior), by Nancy Leson

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