Widgets Magazine

George Giannaris of Hellenic Restaurant on Food, Family and Community

Q: How did you come to the North Fork? A: My family came out to vacation here in East Marion starting in 1967. I was born in 1969, so the North Fork has always been a part of my life. We moved out here for the summers in 1976, when they took over the snack bar. Back then it was Brown’s Cabins and Snack bar, but our family renamed it Hellenic Cabins and Snack bar.

Q: What was the snack bar like? Did your father come from the restaurant industry, or was this a new thing for him?

A: It had a counter with six stools and four tables. The first year it was just burgers and hot dogs and shakes. After that my father introduced Greek food, and the lemonade we became famous for. We served souvlaki, then gyros. We were open from May to July. My father’s prior cooking experience was in the Merchant Marines; he came from a seafaring family. When he took over the snack bar he was a banquet waiter at the Plaza Hotel.

Q: He must have had a lot of natural culinary talent then, as your four decades in business is a testament to how good your food is. When did the snack bar become the full service restaurant the Hellenic is now?

A: Yes, my father is talented, as well as my mom, who is very much responsible for most of the recipes. He came up with his famous lemonade recipe in 1977. It’s extraordinarily good and simple, lemons, water, sugar and ice, and we would get lines out the door for it. People would come from all over.

1985 is when we made the big change; we moved out here full time and expanded the restaurant to the size we are now.

Q: Do you bottle your famous lemonade?

A: No. We get asked to all the time, but it would ruin it. When it’s fresh it’s fabulous but it doesn’t sit well. Every single cup is handcrafted fresh, made to order. To bottle it you’d need preservatives, there’d be pressure to use lower quality ingredients, like citric acid instead of lemons. Coming in and getting it made fresh for you is part of the pleasure of it all.

Q: So you’re the next generation running this family business. Did you grow up in it? When did it become yours? And do you have a generation waiting in the wings to take over?

A: Yes, I’ve always been in the business. Put it this way--The last time I had off on Fourth of July was 1976. I did the classic, start as a bus boy and do everything on up. There’s no part of the business I didn’t do. I was an only child, so I’m the only one in this generation.

I didn’t take it over right away. Instead in 1995 I opened my own restaurant in the Hamptons called the Hellenic. I closed in 1998 to start taking over the family business. Though I was running it more or less from then on, we finished formalizing the transition a few years ago. I have two sons, but I don’t want either one of them to take it over.

Q: You don’t want your sons to take over? Why not?

My youngest son is 13, and he wants to go to culinary school, he is infatuated with baking and started making cakes and selling them about two years ago, but he’s not allowed to take over this restaurant--if he starts working here, this will be the only place he sees his father and I want us to enjoy each other on our time off. His kids can take over the restaurant. I mean, I’ll be happy to help him launch his own restaurant, just not this one.

My oldest is 17 and is going to pursue a career in mechanical engineering. He’s started his own business already. He has a passion for woodworking, he likes making these beautiful, high end pens on a lathe using North Fork resources—made out of local wine barrel staves, drift wood, Aldo’s coffee beans—he’s come up with his own acrylic process. He is the first person ever to make a pen out of a cigar. He uses hand-wrapped cigars from Greenport Fire.

I am really proud of him. He started selling his pens in September 2014, and has sold over 80 of them. Some take over 10 hours to make. His website is nfpens.com “North Fork Signature Turnings”.

Q: So you’re long past the snack bar days of gyros and lemonade; what’s your menu like now? And are you open in summers only or year round?

We’re open 10 months a year—not December or January—7 days a week, breakfast, lunch and dinner. We offer a terrific range of Greek and American food.

redsnapper

 

This year we’re trying to start a groundbreaking movement on the North Fork with organic ingredients and a large range of gluten-free food. Greek food, by the nature of it, is simple and largely gluten free, as long as you take away the pita-- a lot of local fish, lamb and vegetables.

lamb chops

But we also offer non-Greek gluten free items, like this fantastic organic pancake mix made in New Mexico. We ship it in special because it’s really terrific.

We got into the organic movement when my nutritionist put me on an organic diet in January of this year, and I saw immediate and real benefits and decided I’d be a real hypocrite if I didn’t offer that to my customers.

I’m very excited because there are local organic farms I’ve worked with before, like MarGene, and we’re pairing up for this summer.

This is all in addition to what we’ve always had. We’re not changing everything, just adding to it. When you’ve been in business for 39 years you don’t want to alienate your customers by changing everything.

Q: Do you serve alcohol, so people can get a Sunday morning Bloody Mary or Mimosa?

A: Yes, and many cocktails besides.

We’re very proud of our vodkas, we infuse our own. We created a signature cocktail list last summer, called the Dangerade, which is our signature lemonade with our own fresh raspberry infused vodka. We call it Dangerade because the first question people ask is: Are you sure there’s alcohol in this?

Another soon-to-be-legendary cocktail is our twist on the traditional Bloody Mary. We call it “Hail Mary,” made with freshly infused green and red bell pepper premium vodka, in our own signature made-from-scratch Bloody Mary mix. Our other cocktails are made with wines and spirits from local wineries and spirit manufacturers.

bar

We have a cozy indoor bar in addition to the restaurant, and we’re in the process of getting the permits to put in an outdoor bar, and we’re going to try to tackle that this year. We’re not trying to be a nightclub or anything, not late nights, just add another dimension.

Q: What do you love about being on the North Fork?

A: The natural resources are extraordinary. I love to fish—spear fish—I’m an avid free dive spear fisherman. While most local spear fisherman go for striped bass, my favorite fish to spearfish are trigger fish, blue fish, fluke, and when in season, blackfish. The best time of year to fish out here, hands down, is October and November. First of all, there’s a migration of fish in October. The blackfish season opens, you see seals, dolphins—it’s awesome. I have a video of a dolphin following my boat.

The North Fork is also a great place to write, and writing is a passion of mine. I published a book in 2008 called Ferry Tales, true stories about growing up on the North Fork. I’m in the editing process for the sequel, which I’ll be releasing in July. It’s going to be called Ferry Tales II—When Hellenic Freezes Over.

I also have a blog called Fifty Shades of Greek—I named because of the book, long before the movie. It’s about life on the North Fork—not my restaurant per se, though I post a recipe or two.

Q: So will you keep books on hand if people are interested in getting a signed copy after their meal?

A: Yes absolutely. Also I’m doing a book signing on May 8th at The Suffolk County Historical Society.

Q: Anything else we should know about you or your business?

A: Well, it’s not really about me or my business, but I’d like to mention that on May 19th, the Greenport Rotary Club, which I’m a member of, is doing a benefit dinner called Locals for Locals. The last one we did was to raise money for the Greenport American Legion Hall. We raised over $10k, which all went to the Legion Hall. This year we’re benefitting a family facing a housing crisis.

I try to be very involved in my community. That’s what it’s all about here—community. If you’re not involved, you’re in the wrong town.