When you think about food in Baton Rouge, you might think about those landmarks, those institutions.
Within the city is a plethora of good eats as well as cultural gems offering plates of deliciousness that transport you out of Baton Rouge and make you feel as if you’re in a different city, maybe even a different country.
In Order Up!, a new series in Red, we take you to some of the most well-known Baton Rouge restaurants and show why these places are revered. Spoiler alert: The secret is usually in their food.
Up first is Zorba’s, a restaurant that was born in the 1980s, left for awhile, then returned and is doing as much business as ever.
Dinos Economides can’t resist a good challenge.
Breaking through Baton Rouge’s restaurant scene was something he and his wife, Polina, loved so much that they came back and tackled it a second time.
“We knew one day we would return,” Dinos said. “We always wanted to open it back. We always had it in mind.”
The story begins in the late 1970s.
In 1979, Dinos came to Baton Rouge from Cyprus to attend LSU. Five years later, the young man had an electrical engineering degree and not much else.
He and his wife were looking for a way to make a name for themselves in a city known for its love of college sports.
“I went to a computer school, and he had just graduated, and we were looking for jobs,” Polina said. “We realized there was no Greek restaurant in town. We were always foodies. We just decided to go for it.”
In 1984, the Economides family opened Zorba’s on Bluebonnet Boulevard. Now, the space houses Nino’s Italian. For 10 years, the business was located on Perkins Road in the current location of Louisiana Lagniappe.
“We wanted to bring a little influence and Greek culture to Baton Rouge,” Polina said. “We were surprised how much people were open to it.”
For 16 years, Zorba’s maintained a healthy presence on the local restaurant scene. Talking to Dinos, one gets the feeling he knew Louisianians would feel at home in a Greek restaurant.
“Food here is very traditional — you have recipes from the family, and that’s how it was for us,” he said. “Polina always loved cooking. She cooked with her mother and knew her mother’s recipes. Of course, the food is different here. But when we first got here, it was easy to adapt.”
For Polina, that family feeling has always been key to Zorba’s.
“In general, eating in Greece is a family thing,” she said. “You don’t rush to eat. You embrace it. That’s why we feel so much at home here. The way people eat and enjoy being with their families — it’s the same in Greece.”
Dinos and Polina had done the seemingly impossible, breaking through in a tough market with Greek cuisine. Theirs’ was the first restaurant of its kind here. By the late 1990s, the couple had a successful restaurant with a family of customers there and a family, complete with a son and daughter, at home.
Everything was all figured out, right?
Not so fast.
By the time their children were pre-teens, Dinos and Polina wanted them to experience Cyprus. Nothing could stop them. The decision had been made.
The Economideses were going back to Greece.
“My kids were 12 and 10 years old at the time,” Dinos said. “We just decided they were at an age that if we didn’t go then, they wouldn’t go. We wanted them to experience the culture.”
In 2000, Zorba’s, that little authentic Greek restaurant on Bluebonnet Boulevard in Baton Rouge, closed.
“When we decided to close, we didn’t realize how much people were disappointed,” Polina said. “We never thought, ‘Oh, we are so successful.’ We thought we were doing OK.”
Polina, Dinos and the rest of the family settled in Greece. There were trips to different parts of Europe. There were new flavors to be found.
When the kids graduated from high school in Greece, they decided to follow in their parents’ footsteps — attending and graduating from LSU and getting jobs in Baton Rouge.
“When they said they would stay here, we packed, and we came back,” Dinos said, as if the return was a simple open-and-shut case.
Polina remembers it a bit differently.
“While we were back home, Dinos in particular wanted to open a restaurant over there,” she said. “He got the restaurant jitters. We were experiencing other things. Our expertise became even better. Coming back, we wanted to give Baton Rouge something even more than what it was before.”
Thirteen years had passed since Zorba’s had closed, but Polina and Dinos wanted to be closer to their kids and to reopen the restaurant.
“If you ask me, it was a fairly easy decision to come back,” Dinos said.
Once word traveled that Polina and Dinos were callin’ Baton Rouge again, those old regulars started wondering when the restaurant would return, too.
“When we came back, they were calling us, asking, ‘When are you opening?’ ” Polina said. “It was overwhelming. I think people felt that they knew us. They became our family.”
Rebuilding Zorba’s took some time, and it would be a little different this go around. The restaurant would be billed as a Greek Bistro, emphasizing a fine dining, yet casual atmosphere.
After finding a new location on Essen Lane and two-and-a-half months of construction, Zorba’s Greek Bistro opened on May 21, 2013.
If the couple was surprised at their success the first time Zorba’s opened in Baton Rouge, Dinos was even more surprised this time.
“I thought it would take more effort to bring the people back,” he said. “During the time we were building, we were telling people, and word was spreading. The day we opened, it was chaotic. I didn’t expect it to be like that.”
Next month, Zorba’s Greek Bistro will celebrate its three-year anniversary back in Baton Rouge. Next week, the restaurant will have a wine dinner, a monthly event that shows off that family spirit and a bit of Greek tradition the Economides family discusses so much.
For now, Polina said the focus isn’t so much on expanding the bistro into other restaurant developments. No, right now, the family is just concentrating on what it has — a second success.
That isn’t lost on Dinos.
“It was not a matter of it being worth it,” he said. “The main reason for coming back was because of our kids. Family has to stay together. It wasn’t a choice. We love Baton Rouge. We’ve been here for a long time. It feels like home to us.”
This story has been updated since it's original publication.
Follow Matthew Sigur on Twitter, @MatthewSigur.