You know what a classic Greek diner looks like. Open 24-7. Gleaming silver siding. Bands of neon lighting run along every seam. Tabletop jukeboxes packed with ’50s hits. Autographed photos of debatably famous patrons. And, of course, a sprawling menu that can deliver pancakes at midnight, lobster tail for breakfast, a handful of Grecian specials, and all the many points in-between.
Erase that image from your mind.
Modern Greek restaurants couldn’t be more different. First, there’s not a miniature jukebox or a sheet of silver siding in sight at any of them. The Mediterranean cuisine isn’t an afterthought, either. No longer is it confined to the back of the multipaged laminated menu–now it’s the focus. Whether it’s casual choices like pita sandwiches, kebabs, and Greek salads, or more adventuresome items like grilled octopus and flaming saganaki cheese, Medi-minded restaurants are showcasing their Hellenic heritage to a growing number of American diners.
According to Technomic’s recent Ethnic Food & Beverage Consumer Trend Report, 49 percent of consumers say they have tried Greek cuisine and liked it. An additional 23 percent say they haven’t tried it yet, but would like to give it a go. Even more impressively is the fact that 32 percent of respondents say that they order Greek foods or flavors occasionally (about every 90 days).
Attributed to several factors
This rising interest can be attributed to several factors. Celebrity chefs like Cat Cora, Michael Symon, and Michael Psilakis are celebrating their Greek roots and teaching diners about the cuisine through their restaurants, cookbooks, and television shows. High-profile Greek restaurants like José Andrés’ Zaytinya in Washington, D.C., New York’s Molyvos, Palo Alto, California’s Evvia, and its sister restaurant, San Francisco’s Kokkari, have all earned national attention.
On top of this, the Mediterranean Diet has earned a growing legion of followers in the States since it was introduced in 1993. “The Mediterranean Diet’s not a trend at this point; it’s mainstream,” says Sara Baer-Sinnott, the president of Oldways, which promotes the concept. “Heritage diets are the future, because they’re simple, clean, healthy food.”
This dietary approach–based on traditional dining patterns in the cradle of Western civilization–promotes eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, healthy grains, fish, poultry, and olive oil, as well as small amounts of red wine and dairy. At the same time, it advises cutting back on red meat, sugar, and processed foods.
Pano Karatassos, executive chef of Atlanta’s Kyma and a second generation Greek-American, sees interest in the Mediterranean diet as a reaction to the dining excesses of the past. “The ’90’s was about taking your Tums and having a great dinner made up of decadent foods,” he says. “We knew that beef and butter could put on the pounds, but we didn’t know what it could do to our energy levels.”
Kevin Miles, president and COO of Mediterranean-inspired fast-casual chain Zöes Kitchen, believes that consumers are finally coming around. “They’re realizing, ‘Olive oil is better for me than corn oil. And legumes and grains are better than eating potato chips.’”
This isn’t just a company line. In Technomic’s recent Ethnic Food & Beverage Consumer Trend Report, 32 percent of diners said that they thought of Greek food as healthy and rated it the fourth-healthiest cuisine out of 30 different types. The only cuisines that ranked higher were sushi/Japanese, Chinese, and the larger Mediterranean category.
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Photo of Street Pitas courtesy of Daphne’s California Greek.