With their lives in Greece behind them, Christos Nicolaou and Sarah Griffin are bringing their culture to Gainesville through a little restaurant at the corner of Jesse Jewell and E E Butler.
The husband and wife, he from Greece and she from Gillsville, are working to open Alpha Gyro Grill, a Greek restaurant selling gyros and traditional dishes of grilled meats and vegetarian specials based on a lifetime of experience in the Mediterranean country.
Some of the dishes are a blend of Turkish and Greek cooking, others just have Turkish names (like moussaka), Nicolaou said.
Others are pure Greek — foreign food, but familiar.
“The Greek cuisine does not have strange and exotic spices and things. It’s things that most people know,” he said. “These eggplants — it’s going to be eggplant stuffed with sweet onions, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, parsley. These are names that all Americans can associate with. It’s not strange food.”
They’ll offer platters of souvlaki (skewers) with sides, pita wraps and salads. Along with their eggplant, the list of specials include a feta and spinach pie, yellow split peas, giant lima beans, green beans with tomatoes, pastitsio (baked macaroni and cheese with white sauce) and moussaka.
The couple have also put much care into their tzatziki sauce, which will be made in the restaurant based on Griffin’s recipe using Greek yogurt and not sour cream.
If you’re wondering, Nicolaou said the Fage brand of yogurt is pricey but worth it — it’s the real deal.
A couple of their desserts include baklava and greek yogurt with honey and pecans, and those pecans will come from Griffin’s family farm in Gillsville, where the couple has lived for the past six years since returning from Greece.
Griffin, who grew up in Hall County, said most Americans don’t have a full idea of Greek cuisine’s variety and significance.
“In Greek culture, eating together, the family, meals are very important,” she said. “You ask any Greek grandmother, she’s going to ask, ‘What did you eat today?’ First question: ‘What did the children have to eat today?’”
To give people the chance to eat together, they’re in the home stretch of a deep renovation of the former TitleMax at 215 Jesse Jewell Parkway. The office space now has a commercial kitchen, the rotisseries are in place and the dining area aesthetics are coming together.
On top of smooth concrete stained orange, the restaurant will have a dining area commanded by a long, communal table to be shared among customers.
Nicolaou said the idea comes from Greek culture, noting the writer Plutarch, born 45 AD.
“Plutarch says we don’t gather around the table to eat, but to eat together,” Nicolaou said.
Partnering with an Atlanta restaurant manager and fellow Greek, George Giannoulas, the couple hope to have their restaurant open in the near future but don’t have a firm date. Work began in December.
When it’s finished, don’t expect to see the cliched blue-and-white tile that covers most things Greek in the United States. Alpha Gyro is based on the painted village of Pyrgi on Chios, an island in the Aegean sea, that’s covered in geometric gray, white and orange designs dating back to the 10th century.
Once Alpha Gyro opens, it will be one of a handful of true Greek restaurants in the area — and the product of a fascinating story.
Nicolaou is from Thebes, also the birthplace of Hercules, and came to Georgia in 1982 after a stint in the Greek navy.
He came to study business at the University of Georgia — the Greek left his home country for the United States and wound up in Athens.
The coincidences, to Nicolaou so rich they seem a lot like fate, didn’t stop there.
His first September day in America, while walking to find Athens’ Georgia Power office to get electricity in his apartment, Nicolaou ran into a student named Sarah Griffin on the sidewalk.
“I was kind of lost,” Nicolaou said. “It was a hot, humid day in Georgia.”
Griffin happened to be on her way to pay her own power bill, and they walked together. When they got to the office they split up and didn’t think anything of it.
“He didn’t know I was a student,” Griffin said. “He just thought I was a local person.”
Later that day, Nicolaou arrived late to an orientation for graduate students in an amphitheater with what looked like 2,000 people.
“I was late because I had to see my graduate adviser. I sat down quietly, and two or three empty seats (down), it was the same woman I had met three hours before in the street. I just immediately realized that she is a graduate student starting her graduate work.
“... After they finished, I stood up and walked these empty seats to her and said, ‘Do you remember me from three hours ago?’ She said yes. Ever since, we’ve been together. Thirty-five years.”
A few years after graduating from UGA, they moved back to Greece and settled in Athens, where Nicolaou worked as the marketing director for an electronics retailer.
They raised two children, who are now stateside, and had a good life until Greece tumbled into a still-unresolved financial crisis that has destroyed much of its private sector and Nicolaou’s company along with it.
“The Greek state bankrupted the country,” he said, growing frustrated. “It’s not the private sector — the private sector had to pay the bill. … And a lot of these people do not have jobs now.”
“I don’t know what will happen in Greece,” he said. “I’m very pessimistic.”
So in 2011, the couple returned to the United States, where Nicolaou, now 62 years old, didn’t want to become someone else’s employee.
He worked around the Griffin farm before meeting his business partner Giannoulas at the Greek Festival in Atlanta three years ago.
In December 2016, the time was right to jump into a restaurant, and a couple of months later Nikolaou said a final, far-away goodbye to Greece.
“Now I am here for good,” he said. “I became an American in February.”