As exclamations of “opa!” ring across Bayou St. John during this weekend’s Greek Festival, some of those joining in the happy salutation will be toasting more than just the revelry of the moment.
The festival is also an annual reunion of sorts for an extended tribe of Greek expats, a subset of the city’s larger Greek community who all hail from the same island in the Aegean Sea and who, since making New Orleans their home during the 1960s and 1970s, have created their own unique niche in the local restaurant community.
“We’re from villages where everyone knows everybody and here we are in New Orleans now for all these years,” said Leo Christakis, owner of Mena’s Palace restaurant in the French Quarter. “These people, we shared the same difficulties early on, we’ve known each other through our lives. (The festival) is when we get to have everyone together. It is a wonderful thing.”
Christakis was born on the Greek island of Chios and emigrated to the U.S. in 1960 when he was 17. He quickly made his way to New Orleans and began learning English and working his way up from his first job as a restaurant dishwasher.
Many others from Chios have followed a similar path. While they and their children have gone into plenty of different professions, today a tight-knit circle of men and women who share this Chios heritage own restaurants across the area, including Leni’s Restaurant and P&G Restaurant downtown, Please-U Restaurant on St. Charles Avenue, Mano’s Po-Boys and Sunshine Cafe in Metairie, Courthouse Café in Gretna, Gus’s Restaurant in Folsom and Mena’s.
All of these are small, family-run cafes where the owners don aprons each day to tend the griddles and mind the till. With the exception of a few gyros sandwiches, the occasional moussaka special and the pervasive Greek salad, none of these Greek-owned restaurants is explicitly a spot for Greek food. Instead, they serve standard American breakfasts and New Orleans flavors to the tune of po-boys and plate lunches.
“We didn’t know about restaurants back home,” said Petros Bilalis, who runs P&G with his business partner and fellow Chios native Gus Kouniarian. “We learned the business here, so we cook New Orleans food.”
With their familiar flavors and, for the most part, vintage veneers, these well-established restaurants can blend in the backdrop of New Orleans. But behind their diner counters and in the kitchens, where the banter of the business is often conducted in Greek, these restaurants tell an American story of community and family that has stretched across the globe and taken root here in New Orleans.
Chios is a big island, one of the largest among the hundreds that dot the Aegean, and it has a proud history, deep culture and immense natural beauty. But jobs were scarce and education was limited there, and during an era that saw Greece ruled by a military dictatorship emigration was rampant.
“It’s a beautiful island, and when we visit now our children say they can’t believe we would ever leave, “ said Maria Stefanias, who left Chios at age five with her family and now runs the Courthouse Café with her husband Adonios. “But everyone was leaving then, it was very different.”
Those who arrived in New Orleans usually spoke little English but in the city’s small Greek community they had compatriots and family members and an entry point to the restaurant business.
“One person comes over from a family, they go where they already know someone has gone,” said Pete Patselikos, who has run Leni’s since buying the downtown diner from another Chios native in 1978. “They set up the new guy working in the restaurant, and then later he opens his own place. This way you have a start and you have people who can help you, give you advice in the same business.”
Today, these Chios restaurant families are related by blood, marriage or business, with an interconnected network of cousins and second-cousins, in-laws, former employees, uncles and nieces running across them.
The bond to the home island remains strong. Some travel back to Chios each summer, and many belong to the Order of St. Markella of Chios, a local club that is named for the island’s patron saint and raises money for charities here and in Greece.
There are community celebrations through the year, but the Greek Festival is the major social highlight on the calendar. The festival is a benefit for the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral, and like many others from the local Greek community these Chios restaurant families staff food booths and the all-important roasting spits where spring lamb is prepared for festival visitors.
It’s a time for camaraderie and service to the church, they say. And for restaurateurs who serve red beans and fried shrimp po-boys day after day, it’s also a chance to reconnect with their traditional Greek food. For the festival itself, the Chios crew is a boon.
“They’re dedicated, they’re responsible, but most of all it’s the same reason they all own restaurants,” said Ginny Zissis, chairwoman of the Greek Festival. “It’s their work ethic. It’s just unbelievable.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.