Pano Karatassos
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Pano Karatassos

John Kessler / May 2005

Food Arts presents the May 2005 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Pano Karatassos, the multiunit restauranteur whose Buckhead Life Restaurant Group has set the pace in Atlanta for over a quarter of a century. From the time he opened Pano's & Paul's in 1979 with chef Paul Albrecht, Karatassos has been the driving force in Atlanta's culinary community, imbuing the city's upscale Buckhead district with his trademark brand of rococo dining glamour and forging a national role for Atlanta as a powerhouse in foodservice-based philanthropy.

During the expansion of his dining empire in the 1980s, Karatassos became deeply involved with charities, including the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. But combating hunger remains the primary focus of his philanthropic activity. "Those of us who make our living from the hospitality industry have a responsibility to take care of the hunger problem and lead the way. It's our responsibility to give back," he says.

"When it comes to Share Our Strength's Taste of the Nation, Pano has not only raised enormous sums of money to fight hunger," says Danny Meyer of New York City's Union Square Hospitality Group, "but his leadership has set the bar at an incredibly high level for all the other cities across the country."

Karatassos was born in the polyglot port city of Savannah, Georgia, the son of a Greek-American food importer. After serving in the Navy, he graduated from The Culinary Institute of America. A nascent hotelier at first, he worked his way through such vaunted properties as the Greenbrier hotel in West Virginia, the Palm Beach Everglades Club in Palm Beach, Florida, and the Palace Hotel Gstaad in the Swiss Alps. It was at a hotel in Washington, D.C., that he met and began his long collaboration with Albrecht.

Pano's & Paul's was, to say the least, a whole new ball game for tradition-bound Atlanta. Karatassos and Albrecht took over a failed restaurant in a sleepy strip mall, packed it with enough velvet and gilt to inspire decades of boudoir jokes, and devised a menu that—to the city's great relief—broke every rule of formal dining. Karatassos has wryly commented that his company was built on the restaurant's signature dish of batter-fried lobster tails.

A showman at heart, Karatassos developed subsequent concepts that became as famous for their landmark architecture as their food. Among the most iconic are Atlanta Fish Market, with its 65-foot iron-and-copper-clad salmon leaping skyward, and Buckhead Diner, a reflective Art Deco beauty. Currently, Buckhead Life comprises a dozen properties, no two of which are alike. "I thrive on developing new concepts, especially those that are firsts for Atlanta," says Karatassos. Kyma, opened in 2001, certainly counts as one, a white marble temple to Greek mezze, wine, ouzo, and Mediterranean seafood. The Daniel- and French Laundry–trained chef at Kyma doesn't lack for bona fides: he is Karatassos' son, also named Pano.