It was a rags-to-restaurant story. Aris and Cassandra Apostolou leave Greece for America, wash dishes and wait tables and scrape together enough money to open their own taverna in St. Paul.

Greek food was unusual in the Twin Cities when the Acropol Inn opened in 1975 and the couple struggled to establish a foothold.

“The first year it was very, very tough,” Cassandra Apostolou recalled.

But their restaurant soon established a reputation for gracious white tablecloth service and higher standards than more casual Greek eateries.

“I’d rather disappoint a customer with no saganaki than with bad saganaki,” Aris explained to a food critic.

Aris Apostolou died earlier this month at age 84, more than two years after illness forced him to close the institution on Grand Avenue, where he was a business pioneer before the street was gentrified.

“He was on Grand Avenue so many years, long before Grand Avenue became Grand Avenue,” St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman recalled last week.

As a young man, Aris worked as a police officer in Athens before moving his wife and infant daughter to the Twin Cities in 1956 on the advice of relatives who lined up work for them. Aris washed dishes and waited tables while Cassandra bused tables at several Minneapolis restaurants; he served as head waiter for 14 years at the former Kahler Hotel.

When layoffs hit the Kahler, Aris decided it was time to take a shot working for himself.

“He went to Mom and said, ‘Let’s open our own business,’ ” said their son Dionysius. “Mom thought he was nuts.”

Aris bought the storefront on a Grand Avenue, which at that time was down-at-the-heels.

“It was a rough neighborhood,” Dionysius said. “He bought it cheap.”

His entire family quickly found places in the restaurant and in the neighborhood. Daughter Vicki poured ice water and son George joined Dionysius waiting tables. One day, decked out in a stiff white shirt, black pants and black bow tie at work, Dionysius made news chasing a man who robbed a nearby pawnshop.

One of Acropol’s biggest fans was Nick Coleman Sr., father of the mayor and a Minnesota Senate majority leader in the 1970s who represented the neighborhood. He died in 1981.

“When my dad was sick with chemotherapy, he could always manage to find a way to eat the food from Acropol,” Coleman recalled last week. “It was one of my dad’s all-time favorites.”

Cassandra said Acropol once delivered a combo plate to Nick Coleman in the hospital.

Aris was gung-ho about St. Paul, once serving as grand marshal of Grand Old Day. But he wasn’t shy about defending his business when he thought he’d been wronged. In 1989, he complained that a neighboring auto repair shop was serving up car exhaust to the Acropol’s kitchen staff a few feet away.

“It’s giving us headaches in the kitchen,” Aris complained to a newspaper reporter. “I can’t take it anymore.” Cassandra said she doesn’t recall how the dispute was settled.

Aris missed the restaurant after he closed it. A couple of months before his death, Cassandra offered to drive him to the shuttered building for a look. “He said, ‘No, I don’t even want to go and see the building, even from outside, because that’s when I’m going to die, right there,’ ” she said.

His wife, Cassandra, and daughter, Vicki, live in Crystal, and sons George and Dionysius in Brooklyn Park. He also is survived by 10 grandchildren.

Services have been held.