By Marjorie Rice
Bouzoukis and belly dancing, spanakopita and pastitsio – George Vassiliou and his family have been sharing the sounds and tastes of Greece for six decades and three generations. They’re still sharing at GreekTown, on Seventh Street in Sunnyslope.
Every night but Sunday, George, his wife Anastasia, and sons Grigori and Dimitri continue a tradition that dates back to 1968, when George’s late father, also named Grigori, opened his first supper club in California.
Grigori Vassiliou was a noted musician and singer, George said. “He came to Montreal in 1950 and was a guitar player and singer for many famous bouzouki players, and he backed up many of the famous Greek women singers in New York in the first stereo recordings of their music.”
When Grigori would get a new job at a supper club, he’d pack up the family, now including four children, and travel to sites across the U.S. and Canada on gigs that could last up to two years.
“I went to 15 schools across the country,” Vassiliou said.
The clubs combined stage shows and Greek dishes, bringing a taste of home to Greek immigrants and introducing others to food and dancing made famous by the movie, “Zorba the Greek.”
In 1968, Grigori gave up the peripatetic gig life and moved to California, following that supper club formula when opening the Athenian Gardens. It was immensely popular, George said, but the 1994 Northridge earthquake convinced Grigori that his family needed to move to where the earth didn’t. Eventually they settled in Phoenix and in 1975 opened the Greek Village supper club.
“We all participated in the show and the food,” George said. “I actually did a table dance where I lifted the table with my teeth. My dad had seen another dancer do it and he said I could do it too because I had a strong jaw because I talked so much!”
That metamorphosed into the Grecian Village, still with a stage show, then the Bacchanal. While the names and locations shifted, they’ve always had the same recipes, George said, but taken up several notches by his wife Anastasia, an accomplished chef.
They sold that location to two of the dancers and opened the original GreekTown on Seventh Street and Glendale, with no stage show.
By then George was running the operation while his dad acted as maître’d, occasionally singing and playing the bouzouki. When they lost their lease, George took the plunge and bought a property, originally a Pizza Hut.
“I wanted to own my own place,” he said.
“I decided I wanted to redevelop Sunnyslope in my own crazy way. People said I was nuts. The area was a mess but I could see the potential. Sunnyslope is Brooklyn – people from all levels: millionaires and working class people. I thought it would grow, and I was right.
“Eventually the whole area kind of metamorphosed. When Little Miss BBQ came there, it solidified the area as a little culinary gem with unique restaurants. You truly have the mom-and-pop feel in Sunnyslope.”
The ambiance is warm and welcoming – but it’s the food that keeps people coming back. Start with a unique take on fried calamari: pan seared calamari in a garlic, olive oil and lemon sauce. And don’t miss the souvlaki: pork or chicken cubes grilled on skewers. It’s the most popular dish on the menu.
“You can get a gyro and Greek salad that’s enough for two meals, or a $50 bottle of wine and a rack of lamb that you couldn’t get at a fine steakhouse,” George said.
While there’s no stage show to accompany the food, that doesn’t mean a night out at GreekTown is a sedate venture. George, Grigori and Dimitri occasionally will break into a sirtaki, their arms linked over their shoulders, stepping, knees bent, in a pattern made famous by “Zorba the Greek.” It’s the kind of lively mix that the Vassilious have been serving up since the ’60s, a uniquely Greek way of doing things.
“You kind of feel like family when you come in,” George said. “It’s a continuation of my father’s spirit. It’s more like a vacation in Greece than a restaurant.”
GreekTown, at 8519 N. Seventh St., is open from 4 to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday (“Never on Sunday!” says a sign at the door). For more information, call 602-674-8881 or visit greektownrestaurant.com.