Tracing the roots of a widespread network of New Orleans restaurateurs back to one Greek island and one shared American story.
“Opa!” that’s the universal Greek exclamation of joy, and you’ll be hearing it a lot this weekend as the Greek Festival returns to the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Lakeview. But for some of those sharing in the opa spirit, the toast is about more than just the revelry of the moment.
The Greek Festival is also an annual reunion of sorts for an extended tribe of Greek expats in New Orleans, a subset of the city’s larger Greek community. They all hail from the same island in the Aegean Sea, called Chios. And since making New Orleans their home over the past few decades, they have created their own unique niche in the local restaurant community.
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. It’s not an obvious circuit, but it is widespread. It includes Leni’s and P&G restaurants downtown, Please-U Restaurant Uptown, Mano’s Po-Boys in Metairie, Courthouse Café in Gretna, Gus’s Restaurant in Folsom and Mena’s Palace in the French Quarter.
All are small, family-run cafes where the owners don aprons each day to tend the griddles and mind the till. The banter behind the counter and in the kitchen is often in Greek, but with the exception of a few gyros sandwiches and the pervasive Greek salad, none of these Greek-owned restaurants is explicitly a spot for Greek food. Instead, they serve standard American diner breakfasts and New Orleans flavors to the tune of po-boys and plate lunches.
With their familiar flavors and, for the most part, vintage veneers, these well-established restaurants can blend in the backdrop. Subtle totems to their shared background abound, however, from the dusty bottles of Greek brandy sitting on the shelves to the Greek Festival posters on the walls to the occasional postcard showing the spearmint blue Aegean lapping at the rocky shores of Chios. Behind the scenes, most of these Chios restaurant families are related by blood, marriage or business. Behind the counter of any of these places, you’re likely to find the wife of a father’s brother from another restaurant, or some similarly dizzying relationship.
The specific Chios-to-New Orleans connection brings to mind the strong Sicilian ancestry in the local Italian-American community, though for these Greeks the immigrant experience is generally more recent. Most of the restaurateurs from Chios arrived here in the 1960s and 1970s, and the bond to the home island remains strong.
There are community celebrations through the year, but the Greek Festival remains the major social highlight on the calendar. The festival is a benefit for the local Greek church, and like many others from the community these restaurant families staff food booths and the all-important roasting spits where spring lamb is prepared.
It’s a time for camaraderie and service to the church. But also, for restaurateurs who serve red beans and fried shrimp po-boys day after day, it’s a chance to reconnect with the traditional Greek flavors they grew up eating. That’s cause for celebration, or, as they say, opa!