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Tri-Valley family restaurant in Dumont has a new look, same taste

Owner Sandy Panagiotou hasn’t let the public know when, after being closed for seven months for renovations, she reopened the Tri-Valley Family Restaurant, a nearly half-century-old luncheonette in Dumont.

“I didn’t want to be too busy,” Panagiotou said. “I always want to give good service.”

It didn’t matter. In no time, the traditional neighborhood mainstay was packed – again. The neighbors told the neighbors. Families have told other families. And some ad hoc influencers took to social media to spread the news.

The Tri-Valley family restaurant opened in Dumont in 1975 by Peter Panagiotou (not pictured).  Panagiotou's daughter Sandy Panagiotou (not pictured) took over the business and recently had the restaurant renovated.  An assortment of dishes is presented on Wednesday, March 16, 2022.

That day in February, “there was a line at the door,” said Panagiotou, a 49-year-old mother of two who lives in Harrington Park. “The first week was amazing.”

For its fans, many of whom are decades-old patrons – during renovations a ramp was widened to better accommodate diners in wheelchairs – the reopening was a huge relief.

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Many feared that Tri-Valley would never reopen, forever denying them the pleasure of biting into a two-fisted Tri-Valley “Rodeo” burger slathered in melted cheddar cheese; or the joy of devouring a stack of Oreo pancakes topped with scoops of ice cream; or the satisfaction of polishing a plate of tender Hungarian goulash or velvety Yankee roast.

Perhaps even more than losing the joy of eating down-to-earth meals in their neighborhood, they feared losing the kind of warmth and hospitality that Tri-Valley served.

The Tri-Valley family restaurant opened in Dumont in 1975 by Peter Panagiotou (not pictured).  Panagiotou's daughter Sandy Panagiotou took over the business and recently had the restaurant renovated.  Sandy Panagitou comes to the aid of Reynold Rieger, a client since the mid-1970s, on Wednesday, March 16, 2022.

“Customers were worried that I would change it too much and make it too fancy,” said Panagiotou, who has spent more than half a million dollars installing new booths, new tables, new floors, new bathrooms and a new kitchen.

She did this, she says, to help attract younger diners; The Tri-Valleys tend to be “older,” she said. “It’s beautiful. It’s brighter. It has a nice fresh look. But it’s still Tri-Valley.”

It’s always a welcoming and inviting place where the prices are reasonable, the food is tasty and familiar, and the staff isn’t haughty.

Panagiotou has increased its price by 15% to 20%, but many customers agree that it is still quite affordable; a large Greek salad is $10.50; London broil with soup or salad, potato and vegetables, $16.95.

“I haven’t changed the menu much,” she said. Except for its first eight months, Tri-Valley has had the same chef: John Matthews, now 80, who “can pick up a sack of potatoes like nothing happened,” said declared Panagiotou.

Its staff of 20 does not change every two weeks either. Many have been in the restaurant for at least 15 years.

And, of course, it’s still the same family that runs it.

Sandy Panagiotou’s parents, Peter, 87, and Stacey, 72, bought the shop, then an ice cream parlor, in 1975. “I made my own homemade ice cream,” Peter said. He eventually turned the lounge into a restaurant, making sure to offer dishes made with “top quality ingredients”, he said. “I doubled the turnover. You have to have quality.”

“A lot of police and firefighters would come here,” he said. “I felt very protected.

His father was his first boss. Peter hired current chef Matthews – “I’ve known him for 70 years” – eight months after opening.

Sandy has worked in the restaurant since she was 10 years old. “Sandy was standing on a crate of milk and working the crate,” Peter said. Some customers remember seeing her doing her homework at the counter.

The Tri-Valley family restaurant opened in Dumont in 1975 by Peter Panagiotou (not pictured).  Panagiotou's daughter, Sandy Panagiotou (not pictured), took over the business and recently had the restaurant renovated.  A plate of beef goulash is presented on Wednesday, March 16, 2022.

Sandy graduated from Northern Valley Regional High School in Old Tappan, went to college and, after getting married, went into the restaurant business with her then-husband. They owned Borderline Bagels in New Milford and Delmonico Steak and Seafood Restaurant in Closter.

Six years later, they divorced. In 1999, his parents sold Tri-Valley and retired. “I was sad,” Sandy said.

The restaurant passed through a few owners, eventually becoming an Italian joint named Intermezzo. When, in 2007, she learned that it was for sale, she bought it with her sister and converted it back into Tri-Valley. “My parents were so happy,” she said. The sibling partnership did not last, but his parents always lent him a hand.

“I’ve been in the restaurant industry all my life,” she said. “It’s in my DNA.”

His customers are delighted.

“I’ve been going there forever,” said Matt Santiago, a bariatric nutritionist who lives in Demarest. And apparently often. “At one point I ate more there than at home. I thought our stove was broken.” Today is maybe once a week.

The reason for his loyalty? “It’s a good neighborhood family restaurant, the kind we’ve lost today. It has a great atmosphere. The staff are friendly. They always say hello. And the food is surprisingly good.” He loves salmon, he says.

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Keith Wright, 72, of Montvale, who considers himself a “foodie” (“My son graduated from the Culinary Institute of America”), is also a fan. “Everything is so well prepared,” he said. “I haven’t found any other place that cooks vegetables as well as they do.”

He loves roast pork, omelettes and burgers. “A burger should be easy to make, but not all places do it well.” Adding: “The first week Sandy opened, we were there.”

Wright’s brother Mark, a Demarest resident and retired English teacher at Northern Valley Regional High School in Demarest, was there days after the opening. “It’s still packed with locals. It’s really affordable, kind of a neighborhood restaurant. Everyone knows it. Everyone really missed it.”

Sandy insists she’s not going anywhere. She loves the place too – and is there every day. Tri-Valley, at 366 Knickerbocker Road, is open daily from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

“It’s in my heart,” Sandy said. “I go to work and it’s not like work for me. I don’t even count the money.”

Esther Davidowitz is the food editor of NorthJersey.com. For more on where to dine and drink, please register today and sign up for our North Jersey Eats newsletter.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @estherdavido

Richard Dement

The author Richard Dement