For the past few weeks, Dina Beligrinis has been spending a lot of time in her kitchen. It’s the time of year when lots of people are making holiday treats but what Beligrinis has been making aren’t your run of the mill Christmas cookies.
Beligrinis immigrated to the United States from Greece almost 50 years ago chasing that American dream. Through hard work, she and her husband, George, achieved the American dream and bought West Lake Family Restaurant in Denver 12 years ago. Every Christmas Eve since they took ownership, they’ve shared their Greek heritage with their customers as a way of thanking them for their support over the years.
On Monday, Beligrinis was in the kitchen at West Lake making another pan of baklava, which is a rich, sweet desert created by paper-thin layers of phyllo dough (which she makes by hand) and a filling of walnuts, sugar, cinnamon and ground cloves. Once the 29 layers are assembled, it’s cut into triangles which are each held in place with a clove stud. After it’s baked, it’s glazed with a honey and sugar syrup. Beligrinis learned to make the pastries from her mother when she lived in Greece.
In addition to baklava, Beligrinis makes “koulourakia” twist cookies, which are often associated with the Greek Easter and are like butter cookies, “melomakarona” (honey) cookies, “troufes” which are like chocolate, walnut truffles and peanut butter balls. All of these pastries are offered to their customers on Christmas Eve. They can take as little or as much as they want and there’s no charge. There’ll be approximately 4,000 individual pastries set out on the table at the restaurant when it opens on Tuesday.
“Sometimes I’m up until 12:00 at night baking,” said Beligrinis as she assembled the baklava. “It’s a gift. I like to do it.”
Beligrinis decided to make the pastries the first year that they owned West Lake and after that, the customers started to ask for them every year.
Baklava is a dessert that’s often available in supermarkets or some restaurants in a mass-produced form. It’s nothing like the delicate pastry that Beligrinis makes.
“You can tell it’s manufactured,” Gus, the youngest son in the Beligrinis family, said. “When you’ve had it made by a Greek lady that prepares them in the true authentic way, it’s completely different. Now you know why I’ve got this belly.”
The Beligrinis have four children who were all brought up in the restaurants their parents worked at. Gus is still working at West Lake with his parents.
“We feel like the people who come in and eat here are like family,” Gus Beligrinis said. “That’s another reason why my mom does it. I told her that we should teach some of our employees how to make them so she doesn’t have to do it all, but she said, ‘no, it’s not the same.’ She does it because she loves to see people smile and be happy.”
Whenever an item is made entirely from scratch, it’s going to be different depending upon who makes it.
“When I make something, and she makes something, it never tastes the same,” Gus Beligrinis said. “You prepare it the same way with the same recipe, but it isn’t the same. My touch is different than hers.”
All of the recipes used at West Lake are from George and Dina Beligrinis. They still do some of the cooking, but they have cooks who work there now.
“It’s a home type of environment and the family is involved,” George Beligrinis said. “My daughter who’s a lawyer is here on the weekends. It’s been like that for the last 40 years when I had a restaurant in Charlotte.”
One son is in Florida and a daughter is in Greece.
“I love my old country too, but I just visit now,” he said. “I love everything about America. It’s the land of opportunity. It’s a better, free market with independent business people. You can do as you please. They choke their economy with regulations over there.”
The pastries are only available on Christmas Eve because they’re very time consuming to make.
“I could do it, I just don’t have time during the week because I have so many other things I have to prepare for the restaurant,” Gus Beligrinis said. “Our customers show us loyalty throughout the year. This is our way of saying thank you and we appreciate you. I love making people smile when they come in the door and when they walk out. If it wasn’t for my mom, it wouldn’t be possible.”
I didn’t think she was going to do it this year and I was telling people she wasn’t going to. Then she pops in here in November and says, “hey we’re still doing the pastries, don’t tell people we’re not doing them.”
“It makes our hearts full seeing people come in here and smile right before Christmas,” Gus Beligrinis said. “I don’t know how to describe it, but it makes me feel like we’re doing what we’re supposed to do.”