While Italian, Asian and American restaurant chains currently dominate our high streets, it has been left to independent family-run Greek restaurants and London-based Greek restaurant brand The Real Greek to fly the Galanolefci for Hellenic cuisine in the UK.
However, 2015, it appears, could be the year for Greek food to really make its mark in the UK’s restaurant sector, but why now? And will UK diners embrace this new wave of modern Greek restaurants which are aiming to cast aside our dated perceptions of the plate-smashing Greek taverna?
For Yannis Theodorakakos, the co-founder of Suvlaki, an Athenian grill house which will replace 21 Bateman Street in London's Soho in May, Greece’s economic crisis is a contributory factor with a number of Greek restaurateurs now more willing to explore opportunities outside their country.
Indeed, this could be said to be the case for Ergon, the deli and restaurant brand set up by brothers Thomas and Giorgos Douzis in Greece in 2011, who, after establishing their business in their native country, went on to open sites in London and Brussels.
However, the main reason, as Nikos Nyfoudis of The Life Goddess and The Greek Larder founder Theodore Kyriakou, said when they were looking to launch their new projects, is the fact that there just aren’t many Greek restaurants, certainly not those who represent the breadth of the native cuisine, in the UK.
“A number of food experts realize that Greek cuisine, from fast casual to fine-dining, is vastly under-represented in the UK,” says Theodorakakos, who recently quit his job in finance to launch his new food business, which will specialise in the skewered meat dish souvlaki.
“The potential of Greek cuisine is largely unexplored and that will certainly change in coming years.”
It is certainly set to change this year with the arrival of Markos Tsimikalis’ classic Greek restaurant The Hungry Donkey in Aldgate and Greek chef Costas Spiliadis’ first UK outpost of his fine-dining fish restaurant Estiatorio Milos in Mayfair as well as Theodorakakos’ ‘sleek, modern and fast casual restaurant’ Suvlaki.
While each concept has its own USP, new operators within the Greek market have one thing in common – they want to represent modern Greek food.
“In the past year there has been a massive wave of innovative Greek hospitality concepts opening in London,” says London-based Greek interior designer Afroditi Krassa who has chosen bold colours and satirical graffiti for Suvlaki's interior to ensure it is ‘far removed from the touristic clichés of Greek eateries’.
“As a Greek designer, I am fascinated by Athens’ culinary reinvention and its representation within the UK. Gone are the days of the Greek tavern, bouzouki dancing and plate-smashing. Greece is currently presenting itself as one of the creative powerhouses of Europe and our brand and interior design is picking up on this energy,” she says.
“We want to cast aside the cliche of an outdated Greek taverna in London,” adds Theodorakakos. “We are looking to bring to London an authentic slice of Athens and its culinary heritage, the little 'hole in the wall' grill which has operated for decades, is family run and has been using stunningly simple ingredients with time honored cooking methods.”
Hungry Donkey, set to open its doors in Aldgate later this month, has been heavily influenced by Greek street food with souvlaki cooked on a robata grill also on its menu alongside heartier dishes such as moussaka and stuffed courgettes.
“I really wanted to create somewhere that is modern and cool without losing the simplicity of classic Greek dishes," says Tsimikalis. "The menu has been designed so that we can cater to the city worker who wants a quick and delicious lunch, someone popping in for a coffee or guests who want a relaxed supper.”
Another area all Greek restaurant operators agree on is the growth potential for Greek food with many already considering a roll-out of their new concepts.
"Since the launch of the first The Real Greek in 1999, we have noticed there’s a real appetite for Eastern Mediterranean food, which is healthy and nutritious, and we have opened and continue to open our restaurants to accommodate this growing demand," Christos Karatzenis, head of operations at The Real Greek, told M&C Report ahead of the opening of its eighth site, in Berwick Street, last month.
Dean Wilson the owner of Olive Tree Brasserie, currently looking for sites to expand his company to, agrees.
"There is a massive appetite for Greek and Mediterranean food in the North of England," he says.
The flexible nature of souvlaki, in particular, means it potential to become as popular as the burger, or burrito, believes Theodorakakos.
"Greek street food in particular, which revolves around ‘souvlaki’, a grilled meat skewer eaten plain or inside a wrap, has a very limited presence outside Greece, yet can be a great substitute and competitor to burgers, burritos and hotdogs," he says.
"Our vision is to bring souvlaki to Soho’s discerning food lovers and, more generally, to educate the London audience with regard to the product. We aim to show how souvlaki can be fresh, tasty and healthy, fast and casual, sexy and trendy. London is a great city that has proved time and again how lovingly it embraces new culinary trends."
New Greek restaurant openings - timeline: