Peter and Martha Kataftos have both spent a lot of time working with food.
Peter was born in Greece and grew up eating a lot of Greek food. When he moved out on his own, he wanted to explore other ethnic foods and taught himself how to cook them, from Irish to Italian.
Martha worked with her three sisters in the aptly named Four Sisters Owl Diner in Lowell, Mass. She was described by one visitor there as a “tornado blowing through a diner, a manifestation of pure energy” who excelled at customer service.
That comment came from author and photographer Robert O. Williams, who in 1999 published a book called “Hometown Diners” that profiled eateries across the United States. Williams described Martha as the best waitress he’d ever met, and a photo of Martha and her sister Mary Beth graces the back cover of the book.
The diner in Lowell was owned by one of the other three sisters, and the other two sisters worked there, too. It was, then, perhaps only natural that when Peter and Martha moved to Maine they would start their own eatery.
In June of 2004, they opened what was then known as Martha’s Café at 151 High St. in Ellsworth. That’s the same location it occupies today, though both its name and footprint have since changed.
Peter said the café only took up half the space that the diner does. It served lunch and dinner, offering pizza because there was already a pizza oven in the building.
When the next-door neighbor moved out two years later, the landlord asked Peter and Martha if they would expand into the vacant space. He also asked them to switch to offering breakfast and lunch, because he thought that would be a good draw.
“So we did that,” said Peter, “and we changed the name to ‘Diner’ so people know what kind of food we’re serving.”
The diner is open six days a week: 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesday through Friday; 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday; and 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sunday.
“Weekends are our busiest time,” Peter said. Breakfast is so popular on the weekend that lunch is only available on weekdays.
All of the desserts at Martha’s are made from scratch by the diner’s namesake, and Peter’s interest in ethnic foods is reflected in the menu offerings. He said Martha’s Diner is famous for its spinach pie, and one recent customer spoke to that assessment when she went to pay her bill.
“That’s the best spinach pie I’ve had,” the woman declared.
Peter said another popular choice with customers is a traditional Greek chicken and rice soup.
Traditions from Martha’s family background in Massachusetts carry through at the Ellsworth eatery, too. A dozen different omelet choices bear the names of a dozen different area communities, modeled after the menu at the Four Sisters Owl Diner in Lowell, where omelets were named after city streets.
Omelet choices at Martha’s range from the Bass Harbor (broccoli and cheese) to the Lamoine (fried onions, peppers, mushrooms, tomato and cheese). The Bangor is just two eggs, plain, while the Trenton offers “the works,” defined as “a little of all.”
Local customers and online reviewers alike comment on the friendly service at the diner, from being greeted with a smile (and often called “Hon,” even if they’re a first-time customer) to guidance on the menu offerings.
“I just think it’s a great place,” said Thelma Beal, an Ellsworth native and loyal Martha’s customer.
One reviewer on the website Urbanspoon said that being greeted by Martha herself “when you walk in the door makes you feel at home.”
Peter said that friendly approach comes from Martha’s experience in her family’s diner.
“We copied the system that works,” said Peter. “People feel at home, and they seem to like that.”
Martha is not the only member of her family to copy that system, either. In addition to the diner in Lowell and Martha’s in Ellsworth, another sister and a niece also went on to open diners of their own.
The food at Martha’s gets high marks, too. Reviews can be found online offering opinions on everything from the diner’s crab roll (“so big we almost didn’t eat it all,” wrote an Urbanspoon user) to the ham and eggs special (“the biggest slice of ham I’ve seen on my plate since the recession hit us,” said a reviewer on the website Yelp.)
Peter said the diner has a solid customer base of local eaters who keep it busy even in the winter months. Summertime brings new visitors, and each year seems busier than the year before when those new visitors become repeat customers.
“Once they visit us, they make it a point to come and visit us the year after, too,” he said.
Peter said he and Martha both wear a number of different hats to keep the diner running, and said they have a great group of employees who help make it happen.
He mentioned head cook Albert Webb, a four-year veteran of the diner, as an example, calling him “our heart and soul” and “our right-hand man.”
“It’s definitely a team effort,” Peter said. “We all help each other out.”
Martha’s DinerLocation: 151 High St., Ellsworth
Hours: 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesday through Friday; 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday; and 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
Menu offerings: Breakfast all day, every day; lunch offered from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesday through Friday). Anything on the menu can be ordered to go as well.
Contact: 664-2495, www.marthasdiner.com.