The Beautiful, Bountiful Persistence of Greek food in Astoria

Since the New Year I have been thinking about why, after 5 years of living in our neighborhood, I still get excited about Greek food in Astoria. It dawned on me that my excitement stems from a lot places: the abundance, the quality, and the fact that Greek food in Astoria continues to evolve and change.

I recently posed the question on Twitter about people’s favorite Greek restaurants in Astoria. The names that rolled in were the neighborhood’s heavy hitters, the long time, family run, sit down and spend the whole evening Greek restaurants of Astoria.

Grilled Octopus at Zenon Taverna in Astoria

Grilled Octopus at Zenon Taverna in Astoria

These are the places I fell in love with when I first moved to Astoria because they felt like family, and they felt like home.  And maybe that’s why – along with great quality, affordability and generous portions – we all fell in love with them. Places like Telly’s Taverna, Stamatis, Agnanti, Gregory’s 26 Corner Taverna, Taverna Kyclades, Zenon Taverna, E-Taverna, Loukoumi, Bahari, Kopiaste and more.

While these restaurants focus on more traditional recipes and menus, sit-down restaurants like Ovelia and MP Taverna have taken these beloved family recipes and added more modern twists. This past weekend I had the pleasure of having brunch at Ovelia and talking with the Astoria-raised brothers who own it, Pete and Chris Giannakas.

Kreatopita at Ovelia in Astoria

Kreatopita at Ovelia in Astoria

We talked about how how both brothers and their Mom and Dad contributed to the menu and to the restaurant’s recipes and success overall. As always, their vision started with traditional Greek recipes that they reinterpret in new and inventive ways. Their Dad never turns off the Food Network at home, Chris said, they are all interested in the past, and in current trends in food as well.

Recently, a newer incarnation of Greek eateries has sprung up in Astoria, sporting sleeker branding and menus filled with organic ingredients and heralding lighter, healthier – or even local and sustainable – fare.  This is not to say the older Greek restaurants have ever skimped in this arena. The owner of Taverna Kyclades drives to Hunts Point Fish Market in the Bronx while the rest of us are sleeping to get the very best, freshest seafood available in the city.

Chicken Bacon Platter at BZ Grill in Astoria

Chicken Bacon Platter at BZ Grill in Astoria

Stix on 30th Avenue is one of these new places, a small Greek owned chain with two locations already in Manhattan. According to a recent post by Give Me Astoria, owner Stathis Antonakopoulos grew up in Astoria, and it was a dream of his to open a place here. Stix will soon be joined by Piatsa Souvlaki (also on 30th Avenue) and SVL Bar, coming soon to 31st Street and Astoria Boulevard. But one could say that the great BZ Grill piloted this concept of fast, less formal, high-quality, well-branded and well-marketed Greek fare.

One of the first things that struck me when I first started spending time in Astoria was the neighborhood’s “cafe culture.” It is yet another incarnation of Greek food and culture that makes Astoria unique from other neighborhoods in New York City, and special too. While the iconic Athens Cafe has recently closed, places like Avenue (and the owner’s newer venture, Tru, on Ditmars), Grand Cafe, Flo, To Laiko Coffee Shop, and Cafe Boulis have thrived.

A perfect souvlaki pita from Souvlaki King of Astoria

A perfect souvlaki pita from Souvlaki King of Astoria

Perhaps the most obvious incarnation of Greek food in Astoria is busy sending smoke up on the side of the road: our awesome street food carts. I recently asked the Astoria-raised “Souvlaki Lady” of Ditmars her favorite places to eat in the neighborhood and she mentioned many of the traditional and more modern Greek restaurants above. When I asked Kostas, the Souvlaki King of Astoria where he liked to eat in the neighborhood, he called out Franky’s souvlaki cart on the same block, 31st Avenue, as also being great.

The last and most important thing I would highlight is taste. Go taste the grilled octopus at Zenon Tavena, E-Taverna, or MP Taverna, the bronzino at Tavena Kyclades, the galaktoboureko at Victory Sweet Shop, the melomakarona at Artopolis, the tyropita at Tu Laiko, Yaya’s or Cafe Boulis, the lamb dishes at Ovelia or Gregory’s 26 Corner Taverna, the souvlaki at Soulvlaki King or the Souvlaki Lady’s carts, Frappe at Flo or Tru, and I could go on and on.

An analogy my girlfriend suggested, which I really like, is how when you travel somewhere you seek out the old and new, the traditional and experimental to get to really know a place through its food. The fact that we can do this in our own backyards with Greek food here in Astoria is nothing short of wonderful. Don’t miss out. Get out there and try it all.

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