For nearly four decades, Papadakis Taverna held legendary status in San Pedro — and far beyond — drawing film stars, powerful politicians and sports celebrities in limousines with its authentic Greek food and lively, plate-smashing floor shows.
It’s an understatement to say the taverna is a hard act to follow.
But Greg and Yunnie Kim Morena aim to do it.
They purchased the 5,000-square-foot lot at Sixth and Centre streets late last year for $1.6 million and plan to open Pappy’s, a seafood restaurant with craft beer that also will be a full-spectrum venue for catering, entertainment and special events.
“We’re going to try to do it in stages,” said Greg Morena, who added that some catering and events may be rolled out this summer with the restaurant tentatively set to open (“God willing,” he said) before the end of the year.
The Santa Monica couple bring experience, enthusiasm and creativity to the project. Yunnie Morena’s parents, Korean immigrants, opened SM Pier Seafood in 1977 in Santa Monica. She and her husband — friends since their high school days and now parents of two young children — took over the business and re-branded it The Albright along with Vinny’s, a sandwich shop in Venice.
Greg Morena also has a background in fashion and finance.
And he loves history.
“I’m a big history buff,” he said. San Pedro, he said, reminds him of Venice 30 years ago and in many ways is “the prequel to Los Angeles.” He’s been exploring sites such as Sunken City and gathering information about the town’s colorful past while finding hidden treasures in the restaurant building he purchased.
“When I first came down here and was looking at the building, Joe Buscaino — I didn’t know who he was — stopped his car in the middle of the street and asked, ‘Are you thinking about moving in?’ ” Morena said of his first meeting with the Los Angeles city councilman who represents the Harbor Area.
It’s been a whirlwind ever since.
“I was instantly welcomed and started poking around. (San Pedro) is nothing like I’d ever seen, and I’d been all over (looking for a new restaurant site), from Pasadena to San Luis Obispo to Pismo Beach, Oxnard, San Diego,” Morena said. “It’s just a wonderful, warm community; it’s a rare find.”
Since buying the property late last year, Morena’s been busy uncovering the 1920s-era windows and other original architecture.
“You can feel the history in these walls,” he said.
Among the discoveries hidden behind one of those walls: the original red doors to the Tommy (Good Fellow’s) Yacht Club Cafe, a notorious bar with an upstairs bordello accessed only by a series of ladders. Old matchbook covers advertise “fun for everyone” and a “rendezvous room” that operated in the building back in the day after starting out in the Beacon Street district.
The building at 301 W. Sixth St. served as a U.S. post office before that.
Morena’s intent is to remove the exterior and interior 1970s facades to expose materials such as the brick masonry that was used to strengthen the interior walls after the 1933 Long Beach earthquake. The low false ceilings also are being removed to expose the natural high ceilings in a look Morena calls the historic building’s “raw beauty.”
“My goal is to take it back to the original,” he said.
Since Papadakis Taverna closed in 2010, two other restaurants have leased the space but didn’t last.
Limani Taverna, owned by a Bulgarian family that had a restaurant in Orange County, moved in a year later but closed a year later.
Successful restaurant operator Bob Trusela opened Otto Tratoria in the space in 2014 but that family-run enterprise closed down after Trusela’s unexpected death only a few months later.
In its long history, Papadakis Taverna put San Pedro on the map when it came to a stylish evening out, and Morena realizes he has big shoes to fill. John Papadakis opened his popular Greek restaurant in 1973 to almost immediate success.
“That corner was one of the worst in San Pedro — it was a dirty and dangerous corner,” Papadakis said of the area in the early 1970s. “Within just a couple months we had limousines lined up outside, and over four decades it transformed the opportunities on Sixth Street.”
Morena initially sought to lease the building but decided instead to buy it from Papadakis so he could make the physical changes that would help put his own brand on the new restaurant.
The name Pappy’s draws on the cartoon character of Popeye’s father, Poopdeck Pappy, but also is a tip of the hat to his predecessor, Papadakis, whose nickname since his USC linebacker days was “Pappy.”
Before the restaurant is even open, Papadakis is already one of Morena’s biggest fans.
“His vision will bring new life to that corner,” Papadakis said. “That’s what we need.”
The future success of the area as a whole, however, ultimately rides on the nearby waterfront redevelopment that has been progressing but only in fits and starts and with many delays since Papadakis pushed his Bridge to Breakwater plan 15 years ago.
Morena agrees that the waterfront, including the new San Pedro Public Market and AltaSea, will be critical to the community’s future.
“It’s going to be extremely important,” he said, adding that the developers chosen to remake Ports O’ Call are “best in class” when it comes to restoration. “I’ve seen the transition of Santa Monica, and I’ve seen a lot of the growing pains. I feel like everybody in San Pedro has been deserving of something really great.”
He’s already been drafted onto the Business Improvement District b
oard of directors in downtown San Pedro and was elected secretary at the last meeting.
Pappy’s, he said, will fill a niche for seafood in the downtown. Think grilled fish, lobster rolls, shrimp poor boys, oysters.
“I feel like we should have a sampling of all of that but still be accessible,” Morena said. “I want a place where someone can come in and eat seafood every day.”
He’ll probably start out with some limited events and catering jobs this summer, Morena said.
“As the (Battleship) Iowa or Crafted (at the Port of Los Angeles) or the ILWU need catering for an event, we’re happy to supply that,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity.”
While there won’t be dancing waiters or the (intentional) smashing of plates, Morena said he will make good use of the building’s main dining area along with several separate banquet and meeting rooms for private parties and live entertainment.
He’s open also to using the restaurant space for local art shows, and he wants to connect more with the Wilmington community for events.
“I want it to be a cornerstone,” he said.