Anthony Athanas, an Albanian immigrant who turned a stretch of abandoned landfill on Boston's waterfront into one of the most successful restaurants in the country, died Friday of Alzheimer's disease at his home in Swampscott. He was 93.
In its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, Anthony's Pier 4 was the premier gathering spot in Boston for the powerful: politicians, bankers, judges, athletes, visiting film stars, and celebrities.
Mr. Athanas was a self-made multimillionaire; he also founded Anthony's Hawthorne in Lynn, Anthony's Pier 4 Cafe and Hawthorne by the Sea Tavern in Swampscott, and Anthony's Cummaquid Inn in Yarmouth Port, Cape Cod.
Even in his 90s, Mr. Athanas was a dapper, beautifully dressed man with swooping black eyebrows and piercing eyes. He was also the consummate restaurateur.
For his 90th birthday in July 2001, Mr. Athanas threw himself a party at Pier 4, attended by politicians, celebrities, restaurateurs, friends, and family. After standing for more than an hour in a receiving line, Mr. Athanas began seating people, prompting the MC, anchorwoman Natalie Jacobson, to beg him to sit down and enjoy his own party.
Roger Berkowitz, chief executive of Legal Sea Foods restaurants, described Mr. Athanas Friday as "one of the great restaurateurs of the 20th century." Some of the features Mr. Athanas introduced at Pier 4, such as warm popovers and an expansive selection of fine wines, put him well "ahead of his time," Berkowitz said.
"Anthony was Boston's host," said Mayor Thomas M. Menino. "Pier 4 with Anthony Athanas at the door was the place to be, always alive, and always full of people."
Former mayor Kevin White said: "Like few others, Anthony Athanas was part of the very fabric of the city, and his Pier 4 restaurant as familiar a landmark as the Freedom Trail or Old Ironsides."
A sprawling display of framed photographs in the restaurant's nautically themed foyer captures the visits of the famous to Pier 4, including Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson, Don Rickles, Joe DiMaggio, Judy Garland, and Wayne Newton.
But it was its prominence among Boston's politically elite that the restaurant was best known. It became an obligatory stop on the campaign fund-raising circuit. William M. Bulger, the long-serving president of the Massachusetts Senate, made frequent appearances at the restaurant to fill his campaign coffers, as did former House speaker Charles F. Flaherty.
It was a place of colorful stories and occasional confrontations. One evening in 2002, House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran slipped out of the budget debate at the State House to hold a fund-raiser at Pier 4 that drew a long line of lobbyists and other power players to the restaurant, along with a band of protesters decrying the role of special-interest money in politics.
Mr. Athanas was born in the town of Korcha, Albania, in 1911. When he was 5, he and his mother, Evangeline, rode out of Korcha on a donkey to reach the port from which they sailed to join his father and siblings, first in New York and then in New Bedford. He once said of the Mercedes he drove later in life: "A car is nothing special to me, just a way to get around. But it's a hell of a long way from that donkey."
At 13, he left school to work in restaurants. "All they had in those days were coal stoves," he said. "My first job was lighting those stoves and keeping them stoked." He worked seven days a week and took home about $12. Later came jobs as a busboy and waiter.
He bought his first restaurant, the Hawthorne Cafe in Lynn, in 1938 for a few thousand dollars. In his first year, Mr. Athanas took in about $23,000. By the early 1950s, Anthony's Hawthorne had become the largest-volume restaurant in Massachusetts, grossing more than $1 million a year. It is now closed for renovation.
He opened his restaurant on Pier 4 in 1963, and by 1981, it was grossing some $12 million annually. Three years later, it was serving nearly 700,000 meals per year and was considered the fifth-most successful restaurant in America in terms of revenue.
The menu celebrated local seafood: oysters on the half shell, clams casino, and the best fish in season. Other American favorites such as corn on the cob, steak, and the famous popovers filled the first-floor dining room, where big windows on three sides look out over Boston Harbor.
Mr. Athanas's work ethic and attention to detail were legendary. As Jasper White, chef and co-owner of the Jasper White Summer Shack restaurants, said, Mr. Athanas "kept his eye on the ball." Day after day, year after year, Mr. Athanas would arrive at Pier 4 well before noon and on holidays by 7 a.m. On weekends or busy nights, it would be after midnight before he would walk downstairs from his top-floor office, make a final check of the main dining room, and head home.
"I don't think Boston will see another one like him," White said.
Jacobson called Mr. Athanas "the ultimate host" and recalled he had told her that in the early years of Pier 4, he invited taxicab drivers to his restaurant and added a coffee stand outside. The gesture paid off: Cabdrivers returned the favor by bringing out-of-towners looking for a meal to Pier 4.
Mr. Athanas had served as a president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association and sat on the board of the National Restaurant Association, which in 1976 named him Restaurateur of the Year.
At one time, Mr. Athanas employed some 800 people in his restaurants. His sons Anthony Jr., Michael, Robert, and Paul now handle the day-to-day operations of the restaurants. His wife of 64 years, Esther Athanas, died last November.
White remembers Mr. Athanas once telling him to try to own the land his restaurants were on, saying that the land was far more valuable than the restaurants themselves. Mr. Athanas lost a large parcel of land next to Pier 4 in the early '90s as the result of a highly contentious court battle.
A large $1.1 billion complex of office towers, residences, and a hotel was planned for Fan Pier, land adjacent to the restaurant that was owned by Mr. Athanas. However, in 1987 he canceled the deal for the property, and the developers sued. Faced with a legal judgment that could have cost him $150 million or more, Mr. Athanas reached a settlement in 1992 that left him with the Pier 4 parcel, but gave title to the rest of the land to the Pritzker family of Chicago.
His three other restaurants are on land owned by his family.
Mr. Athanas's extensive wardrobe, partially inspired by Elizabeth Taylor, who once cooed her approval of a double-breasted blue yachting jacket with white pearl buttons he was wearing. "The result was I had eight more double-breasted yachting jackets made," he explained.
Funeral services will be Wednesday at the Albanian Orthodox Cathedral of St. George in South Boston. Visiting hours will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the cathedral.
Globe correspondents Edgar J. Driscoll and Michael Levenson contributed to this report.