It is the middle of the afternoon, in the middle of the week, in the middle of December and Local Greek, the new dining spot on Leigh Avenue, is abuzz with patrons choosing items to take out and diners lingering over lunch, including an enthusiastic group celebrating a birthday in the side dining room. Clearly, word is getting around.
“You came at a good time, it’s been crazy today,” says owner Tony Kanterakis as a chorus of “Happy Birthday” rings out in the background.
This is the first solo venture for Kanterakis, age 42, single, and currently a resident of New Brunswick. Along with his sister, Irene, Tony is the first generation in his family to be born here.
“I’m a local Jersey guy,” he says, “born at St. Peter’s hospital in New Brunswick. My parents were born in Greece and came here in the early ’70s.” He explains that his mother, Chrisanthe, is from the Greek island of Lemnos; Michael, his late father, from Crete.
“Most of the time I visit Crete when I travel to Greece,” Kanterakis says. “My dad’s side is all there, his brothers, my cousins, aunts, and uncles.”
The legacy is partly culinary. Both Lemnos and Crete have an agricultural history that dates back many centuries. Lemnos has a strong husbandry tradition, being famous for its Kalathaki Limnou, a cheese made from sheep and goat milk. The main crops are wheat, barley, and sesame.
Agriculture is also an important part of the economy of Crete and includes olives, oranges, and honey. Throughout Crete a bride and groom are obliged to eat a spoonful of walnuts with honey during the wedding service.
Greek honey and other Greek specialty food products are available for purchase at Local Greek. The honey is especially rare, since a rugged terrain makes honey production labor intensive, and the Greeks themselves consume much of the honey they produce, as much as two kilos per person annually — almost twice the European average. Clay hives have been found dating to 3400 BC at Phaistos, a Minoan city in south central Crete.
Nothing in his formal education seems to have prepared Kanterakis for the life of a restaurateur. “I went to Kean University in Union and studied management science,” he says.
“For my first job out of school, I passed my Series 7 exam (a qualifying test for stock brokers and other financial services representatives) and was a financial planner, first at Merrill Lynch in Somerset, then at UBS (a global financial services company). From there I went into medical sales.”
Kanterakis can trace the influences that led him to the concept behind Local Greek back to memories of his mother’s home cooking and to her entrepreneurial spirit.
“A typical meal at home consisted of a variety of dishes,” he says, “a lot like the meze (Greek tapas) menu we serve at Local Greek. The avgolemono is a really good Greek-style chicken soup, the soup my mom would prepare for me when I was sick. Margiritsa (okra and Greek herbs in a meat broth) is not a soup you’d find in a typical Greek restaurant; it’s something a little more special. Local Greek’s Village Salad is my take on a traditional Greek salad.”
What was the first Greek dish Kanterakis ever prepared? “When I was around the age of 13, I prepared Makaronia me Kima,” he responds, referring to the dish of Greek meat sauce seasoned with cinnamon and other spices, served over a bed of pasta and topped with grated cheese. “It’s is roughly comparable to Spaghetti Bolognese,” he explains, but it’s thicker and includes more spices and less vegetables than some other Bolognese-style sauces.”
Kanterakis re-connected with the Greek home cooking of his childhood and realized he was destined to be in the restaurant business when he began working with his mother, Chrisanthe, at New Athens Corner, a popular specialty Greek bakery and gourmet deli in Highland Park that she founded in the 1990s.
“In the mid-2000s I worked with my mom at New Athens Corner,” he says. “After my dad passed away my mom remarried, and in 2006 mom and her second husband opened Pithari Taverna next door. I loved working with them in Highland Park. I loved it! The excitement, the reaction of people to the food, the energy of the place, I knew it was for me.”
Although Kanterakis returned to the financial services industry for a while, he says he knew where his true calling was. “Pithari took off, but my mom and her second husband had their differences and split up, so I jumped back in to work with my mom. We are part owners in the restaurant now, but I decided I wanted to open a place of my own.”
How did his vision for Local Greek come about? “I always wanted to do my own thing with the idea of blending a Greek-style restaurant, a bakery, and a market together. A place where I would serve breakfast, lunch, brunch, and dinner. Where everything you eat at your table you can purchase here; like the bread, the honey, the olive oil. Everything we serve here we make here; everything is made on premises.”
The name of the restaurant, a glance at the menu, and the shelves stocked with specialty foods from Greece available for purchase offer concrete evidence of Kanterakis’ vision for Local Greek. What is it about Greek culture that makes it special? “I think a lot of the Greek words on the walls explain what’s important about Greek culture,” he replies, “the warmth and hospitality of the Greek people, the attitude that strangers are friends you haven’t met yet.
“I’ve tried to create that spirit in the decor of Local Greek,” he continues, as he indicates the sign over entryway to the side dining room proclaiming ‘The secret ingredient is always love,’ and the three Greek words and their definitions hand-painted on the wall of the side dining room; ‘Filoksenia — An act of hospitality, a warm welcome’, ‘Kefi — The spirit of joy and enthusiasm in which good times and passion for life are experienced by an abundance of excitement, happiness and fun’ and ‘Meraki — The soul; creativity or love put into something: the essence of yourself put into your work.’
The experience one diner reported epitomizes that Greek hospitality: “I bought a bag of Greek coffee. The owner was there, and I asked if I could brew the coffee in a regular pot. No, he said. He told me would have the proper pot available for purchase tomorrow. Then he gave me one of his own pots, and told me to bring it back next time, when I can buy my own. That’s a first and that’s hospitality.”
Hospitality is important, but so is the food. “Greek cuisine is special to me, too,” Kanterakis says. “It’s very different from traditional Italian and American cuisine. It’s lighter, healthier, a variety of fish, meat and veggies, so you get a good mix of everything.”
What was Kanterakis’ first memorable non-Greek dish, and how did he react? “A burger,” he says without hesitation. “I was sold at the first bite!” He points out that he liked that first burger so much that he features his take on it on Local Greek’s menu; organic beef patty, caramelized onions, tomato, BBQ sauce served on a house-made bun, priced at $12.95.
If you could have only one Greek dish in your life, what would it be? “Fava,” he says. “Maybe it’s not for everyone but it’s my favorite.” It’s on the menu too; split pea with onions, carrots and extra virgin olive oil ($8.95)
Although Kanterakis admits he spends little time cooking — “I’m more of a salad guy, I try to eat healthy salads, light and healthy, not heavy”— he has fond memories of the dish that reminds him most of his childhood. “Makarónia Tou Foúrnou,” he says without hesitation. “A casserole made with pasta, mince meat, cheese sauce, and herbs.”
Why Princeton? Why this location? “I’ve had Princeton on my radar for about six years” he explains. “Many of my customers at the Highland Park locations came from this area, and kept asking me when I was going to open a place in Princeton. This past summer I decided to make a move, and I did a lot of research. I looked at Jersey City and almost signed a lease in Hoboken before I found this location online.
“It’s exactly what I was looking for,” he continues, “a little bit off the main shopping strip in an up and coming area, I think that Local Greek will be part of that, and I want to be part of Princeton. I’m planning to move to Princeton in January.”
The look of Local Greek’s interior is a big part of its appeal; rustic wooden tables and floors, white subway tile and whitewashed walls give the impression of a cozy neighborhood hangout on a Greek isle. “The design was prepared by my first cousin, Manny,” Kanterakis reveals. “He’s a general contractor and architect; his design + build firm is called N.E.A. Construction.
“Manny and I worked together on a daily basis for three weeks to put the whole package together,” he continues. “Design, buildout, menu, staff, interior, everything, including building the tables. My landlord, and my Realtor, Tony DiMeglio were amazingly helpful in making it happen.”
How would Kanterakis describe Local Greek’s menu? “The main menu, available all day, includes breakfast, lunch, and dinner items ($8 to $16). Sweet and savory homemade style pastries and desserts ($6 to $8) are made fresh daily in the restaurant’s bakery,” he says. “There’s also a menu of meze (small plates) available from noon to closing that changes weekly and is posted on our Facebook page.”
Recent selections included moussaka (béchamel sauce, eggplant, ground beef, organic olive oil), gemista (tomato stuffed with ground beef, Greek kasseri cheese, rice, and pine nuts), soutzoukakia (Cretan style meatballs with tomato sauce), gigantes (large lima beans, sausage, Greek herbs, and tomato sauce), and Greek-style dips including tzatziki, eggplant, and spicy feta. Local Greek also offers takeout, catering, and delivery.
How has the community responded to Local Greek so far? “The response has been amazing,” says Kanterakis. “We haven’t done a lot of promotion yet, so it’s pretty much all word of mouth. I’m already getting a lot of repeat customers.”
The response to Local Greek on social media confirms Kanterakis’ observation; less than one month after Local Greek’s grand opening in November, the restaurant had earned a nearly five-star rating and 400 “likes.”
Any plans to open other locations? “Hopefully I’m going to New York City next,” he says. “What I’d like to do in Princeton in 2018 is open a satellite location on Nassau Street, a hole-in-the-wall sort of place, offering coffee and pastries to go.”
What else should Princeton residents know about Local Greek? “That they have never experienced what we offer here any place in New Jersey,” Kanterakis says. “Nobody has this style of bistro, Greek bakery, and tapas; nobody had done Greek tapas in New Jersey.”
One last question: Why is Local Greek’s motto ‘Small Bites / Big Smiles’? “I like to think our meze are big on flavor, and my wish is that even a small bite will bring big smiles to the faces of my customers” he replies, smiling.
Local Greek, 44 Leigh Avenue. 609-285-2969. Tuesday to Thursday, 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. BYOB.