Restaurateur Leo Asimakopoulos fled a drug charge in Macon nearly two dozen years ago, but many will never forget him.
The culinary legend with a curly mop of dark hair, who was part of a team that brought fine dining to Macon, died Tuesday in his native Greece at age 69.
The mustached Asimakopoulos, best known for the old Leo’s restaurant in The Alley between Cherry and Mulberry streets, had been battling cancer in recent years.
“He was a great guy,” said Natalia del Basso Orsini, his former fiance and founder of Natalia’s restaurant. “He would truly make the room alive.”
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In 1995, Asimakopoulos skipped town and failed to attend a pretrial hearing after being charged with selling cocaine.
It was his second brush with the law.
A decade earlier, he had been working as an informant for state and federal authorities when officers suspected he was not cooperating with their efforts to stop trafficking from out of state. He was arrested for cocaine possession in 1983.
After a jury deadlocked and a retrial was pending, Asimakopoulos pleaded no contest to the charge. Under first offender status, his record was wiped clean after his probationary period.
His charm and charisma kept his restaurant afloat during his first bit of legal trouble, but the second arrest ended the Macon chapter of his life that began while he was in high school.
When Asimakopoulos was attending a Greek boarding school in the late ‘60s, he met former Mercer University president Rufus Harris during a visit from King Constantine, who also attended the school.
The chance meeting with Harris led to a scholarship at Mercer where Asimakopoulos began studies in 1969 that eventually earned him a business degree.
In 1974, Asimakopoulos began waiting tables at Le Bistro, a fine dining restaurant opened by Capricorn Records vice president Frank Fenter and his wife.
“They needed a nice restaurant to entertain record executives,” said Jessica Walden, of Rock Candy Tours that chronicles Macon’s music history and her family’s involvement with the record company.
Celebrity chef Paul Harpin, who had served Mick Jagger, Judy Garland and royalty, was in the kitchen.
Andy Warhol, Bette Midler, Martin Mull and former president Jimmy Carter all dined at Le Bistro where Asimakopoulos became the manager, Walden said.
Cher and Gregg Allman got engaged in one of the eatery’s secluded booths.
Le Bistro closed after three years, not because of lack of business but because patrons were allowed to sign their bills, and collecting payment became a real problem, del Basso Orsini said.
A little more than a year later, Asimakopoulos, del Basso Orsini, Harpin and Harry Zaloumes opened Leo’s.
“He was the showboat, and I was the tugboat,” said Zaloumes, who still lives in Macon.
Although Zaloumes sold his share of the restaurant in the ‘80s, he kept in touch with Asimakopoulos.
“He was definitely one of a kind,” Zaloumes said. “He had a heart of gold, bubbly, a classic maitre d, just classic.”
Middle Georgians traveling abroad would look up Asimakopoulos at his restaurant near Athens, Greece.
About a year ago, Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills said he took a Mercer baseball cap and shirt to Asimakopoulos while visiting Greece with his wife, Janet.
They shared some wine and fresh sardines, the first Sills had eaten that didn’t come from a can.
“Even though he was undergoing treatment, he was still very hospitable,” Sills said after learning of his death. “Just as nice and just as welcoming and hospitable as anybody.”
It wasn’t until recent months that Sills heard of Asimakopoulos’ run from the law, he said.
“Good Lord. I was cavorting with a fugitive overseas, and I didn’t even know that,” Sills said.
Asimakopoulos fled the United States the year after he moved Leo’s to the Radisson hotel on First Street, the former Hilton which later became the Crown Plaza.
He also ran the Park Place restaurant and Club L.A. in the hotel bar but did not seem to match the success of his former location that is now the Downtown Grill.
“Once he left The Alley and went to the Hilton, it was terrible,” del Basso Orsini said.
Asimakopoulos celebrated his 69th birthday on July 26, the same day Mick Jagger was born.
Del Basso Orsini remembers a phone call Asimakopoulos made one birthday to the lead singer of The Rolling Stones.
“Believe it or not, he talked to Mick Jagger,” she said. “He lived a good life but too short.”
Although Asimakopoulos lived on the lam the last 23 years, his Macon friends and old customers are posting fond memories on Facebook.
Macon’s Pam Lowe Preston posted: “He had a ready smile for everyone and the kind heart of a poet.”
Former Leo’s busboy Jimmy Wesley Barnett, of Warner Robins, wrote: “He was a controversial figure but was a jovial soul with a heart of gold. I will always be grateful to him for introducing me to a world that, at that time, was nearly out of my reach. R.I.P., old friend.”
Retired Theatre Macon director Jim Crisp added that Asimakopoulos was a “marvelous, joyful, delightful and charming man.”
Even the darkest days of his disease didn’t seem to get him down, Zaloumes said.
“He stayed up beat ‘till the end,” he said. “He was well loved by a whole lot of people.”