Our stomachs crave tradition. Perhaps none is as cherished by Americans as eating leftovers the day after Thanksgiving, but in a rowhouse restaurant in a small enclave of East Baltimore on November’s last Friday, it’s souvlaki and moussaka that Dr. Laura Sterni seeks, not stuffing or mashed potatoes.
Nicholas Georgalas is working the grill at Samos, ensuring that Sterni and his other loyal customers feed their Greek fixes. In a city whose culinary scene has evolved immeasurably since Georgalas opened what was then a tiny carryout spot in 1977, his eatery—like Ikaros and Zorba’s, the others that make up Greektown’s Big Three—continues to thrive, despite dwindling numbers.
For the past 30 years, The Big Three was The Big Four. On Christmas Eve, the Acropolis Restaurant served its last roast leg of lamb. Owner George Avgerinos closed it after selling the business. His father, Dimitrios, opened it in 1987 and ran it until his death in September. As Baltimore went to print, there was no word on the new owners’ plan for the space.
How has the remaining trio survived? The restaurateurs who run these relics of a bygone era are men of many years and few, heavily accented words, but those words, like the ingredients in their time-tested dishes, each serve a distinct purpose.
“Greek cuisine is pretty simple,” Georgalas says as he uses tongs to flip a skewer of chicken, onto which he adds a dash of salt, pepper, and oregano. “Lemon, olive oil, garlic, onion. We don’t use too many elaborate things. When I first opened up, I had a vision of selling burgers and hot dogs to American people and souvlaki and gyro to Greek people. But we sell our ethnic food to everybody. Everyone wants spanakopita.”
Samos’ customers place to-go orders at a counter in front of the open kitchen, yet there’s no menu hanging over it nor printed ones within grabbing distance. It’s telling that, for the most part, they’re not needed.
“I’ve been coming here since medical school,” says Sterni, the director of Johns Hopkins Pediatric Sleep Center. “I walk in, and they know what I like.”
People from the neighborhood, the rest of the city, the suburbs, and up and down the East Coast have been coming to Greektown for dolmades, pastitsio, and loukaniko for decades. They are drawn not only by the authenticity of dishes crafted by first-generation immigrants, but by the knowledge that no matter how much time elapses between visits, the stuffed grape leaves, baked ziti with meat sauce, and grilled sausage with feta, peppers, and onions will taste exactly the same as it did the last time.
“I trust my ancestors’ experience,” says Xenos Kohilas, the owner of Ikaros. “We have a very strict mentality. We do Greek cuisine. We don’t change it, we don’t alter it, we don’t cut corners. I do not know any other way.”
Greektown’s restaurants provide a palpable sense of place.
Inside, the dining rooms show their age. Newspaper and magazine reviews that hang on the walls faded long ago, decors are dated, menus are worn. Yet after a bite of spinach, onion, and dill baked in phyllo dough pie, or a dollop of garlicky eggplant dip on a piece of warm bread, none of that matters.
Whether the flavors spark a memory of a long-ago meal back home or fantasies of a country not yet visited, Greektown’s restaurants provide a palpable sense of place. “The restaurants are a vessel to sustain the Greek style of life,” says Charles Village resident Minas Konsolas, who lived in Greektown when he first came to the United States from Greece in the 1970s. “Of course, now Greektown is not the only place where you can find a good Greek restaurant. We have The Black Olive and Ouzo Bay and things like that. Greek restaurants are opening around town. The attraction to go back to Greektown is always the connection to the culture itself. It sort of takes you to a different world.”
Baltimore’s Greektown has never been inhabited solely by Greeks.
“The very first residents were German,” says Rafael Alvarez, a writer who has chronicled the neighborhood and resided in it for 30 years. His grandfather moved into the house where he currently lives in 1935. “There were always Greeks in Greektown, but the huge influx did not occur until after World War II, when civil war broke out in Greece.”
The neighborhood was officially known as Highlandtown, but the locals called it The Hill then. Georgalas arrived from the Greek island of Samos in 1967. He was 18 years old. “It was dominated by Greek people, but it was laced with Italians, Polish, some Germans,” he recalls. “People were proud of their marble steps, polishing them, make them nice and white. Everybody looked after each other. There were a lot of Greek stores. You could buy things for weddings, baptisms. There were barber shops and little grocery stores selling feta cheese.”
Ted Kohilas opened Ikaros in 1969, and six years later, his brother, Xenos, moved from island of Ikaria in the Aegean Sea and joined him at the restaurant. The late Dimitrios “Jimmy” Avgerinos arrived in the neighborhood in 1970, landed a job as a cook, and opened Acropolis in 1987. John Kritikos moved from Karpathos to Greektown, where his father and brother lived, in 1982. He started working at Zorba’s in 1989 and bought the place two years later.
The restaurants have served as important anchors in the neighborhood. While they’ve seemingly remained frozen in time, the world around them has changed. Today, Greektown’s residents are decidedly less Greek. Like many immigrant populations, as second- and third-generation Greek families began acquiring more wealth, many left the city for the suburbs. Xenos Kohilas estimates that when he arrived in the mid-’70s, Greektown (which did not become the neighborhood’s moniker until the 1980s) was home to roughly 500 Greek families. That figure stands at around 150 now, he says.
Xenos took over Ikaros when his brother retired. In 2012, he moved it to its current location at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Ponca Street. “I had the option to stay in Greektown or to go to the county,” he says. “But even though the Greeks moved out of the neighborhood, the feeling of the Greeks is here.”
Today, Greektown’s strongest pillars are the same two that have anchored communities around the globe for centuries: God and food. As long as St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church remains, the restaurateurs are confident their establishments will be blessed as well. The church, Alvarez says, is what makes the area a “village.” And the villagers need places to eat.
In the back of Zorba’s dining room, there’s a window through which customers can watch a rotisserie packed with pork butts rotate over a charcoal grill. Every so often, a drip of juice falls from the kontosouvli, as it’s known in Greek, sending a sizzle and small puff of smoke through the kitchen and a shiver down the spine of the carnivores on the other side of the glass.
It tastes as good as it looks, but Zorba’s is perhaps best known for its grilled octopus. Kritikos buys only the highest-grade octopus and grills it for five to 10 minutes. You can tell when it’s perfectly done, he says, by its softness to the touch.
“People go to Greece and come back to me and say, ‘How do you make the octopus so good?’” he says, as a proud smile spreads across his face.
The dish is a favorite of Jesus Romero, a self-described lover of Greek food. He doesn’t have to travel far to get it—his Mexican restaurant, Charro Negro, is located across the street.
You don’t have to be a social scientist to see that the demographics of Greektown are changing. Next to the Greek Village Bakery sits El Merengue, a Dominican restaurant. Its next-door neighbor is the Greek Town Grill, where the chicken tikka masala is as popular as the chicken souvlaki. Pearl Regmi, a native of Nepal, bought the carryout restaurant two years ago.
“You can walk down Eastern Avenue and you might hear someone saying something in English, and then Greek, and then Spanish or Korean,” says Liam Davis, president of the Greektown Neighborhood Association. “That, in turn, impacts the food scene. There’s a vibrancy here.”
According to the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, Greektown is the most diverse part of the city, with 42 percent Caucasian residents, 35 percent Hispanic, and 12 percent African-American.
Although some residents undoubtedly harbor resentment toward the newcomers and yearn for the days of old, for the most part, people seem to get along.
“People go to Greece and come back and say, ‘How do you make the octopus so good?’”
“It’s always been a very immigrant-friendly community,” says Jason Filippou, former director of the Greektown Community Development Corporation. “The Greek and Latino communities have naturally bonded because there are many similarities. It makes sense for it to be welcoming in general because of the history of the neighborhood.” (Incidentally, when asked his preferred Greek restaurant, Filippou politely declines to cite a specific spot, instead listing his favorite dish at each: Zorba’s lamb chops, the calamari at Ikaros, and Samos’ gyro.)
“Greektown is now Spanishtown, but for me, nothing has changed,” Kritikos says. “I like to be friends with everybody. The more people in the area, the better.”
Romero has owned Charro Negro for 11 years. On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, his bar and restaurant are filled with people watching a soccer match between Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain. Cheers and groans erupt while they sip beers and eat beef tongue tacos. “It’s Greektown, but now I see lots of Latinos,” Romero says. “The Greek people still own the buildings, but we are happy with those guys. They have accepted the Latinos very well, and I think they know we are building the economy in this town. Maybe 80 percent of our customers are immigrants. The food is authentic Mexican food. We cook everything from zero. This is the flavor from Mexico City. That’s the taste from our moms.”
If you changed the accent and “Mexican” to “Greek,” you can imagine similar words coming out of Jimmy Avgerinos’ mouth when he bought Acropolis. He died on September 19 from aortic stenosis. He was 73. “This was his dream,” says his son, George Avgerinos, who started as a dishwasher at the restaurant when he was 12 and ran it after his father’s death until selling it. “This was his life. That’s why he came to America.”
While his family carried on his legacy, it wasn’t easy, says Avgerinos, who plans to continue catering using the name Acropolis. Business was down about 20 percent since the unrest in 2015, his clientele was aging, and he was putting in six to seven days a week at work since his father passed away. In a Facebook post announcing the closing, the family called the decision “bittersweet.”
“When people want to come for an authentic meal, they come to Greektown,” Avgerinos says. “It’s not trendy, but they know they’re going to get straightforward, great food.” That’s what’s kept Sterni, who lives in Towson, tethered to the neighborhood. Her relatives from New Jersey used to stay with her on Thanksgiving, and they’d make the drive into the city to eat at Samos the next day. She doesn’t have the house- guests anymore, but here she is, holding a bag of gyros, souvlaki, and moussaka. Some traditions are worth preserving. “Turkey,” she says as she wishes the staff happy holidays on her way out the door, “can wait.”