LEXINGTON, Ky. – Ilias Pappas always thought he might open a restaurant, but he never made a specific plan to do it. Yet, with the reception of a popular food stand, a passion for authentic Greek food and support from the local community, the pieces all fell into place.
In mid-October, Pappas officially opened the doors to the Athenian Grill, the first brick and mortar restaurant based on the culinary concept of his mobile kitchen.
Pappas came up with the idea of opening a Greek food truck in 2012. He’d just returned to Lexington following a few years in Greece and Miami and was out with some friends when he spotted someone selling food outside of West Sixth Brewery. That moment turned out to be transformative.
“That’s where all of this started,” said Pappas, who initially wasn’t aware it was permissible for vendors to sell food on the street, and thought that he could find success getting involved with the food truck trend transpiring in Lexington.
After all, Pappas had culinary experience. He’d worked with local restaurants and a few spots in Miami. In addition, his family had a history in catering. He took the leap and opened the food stand in September of 2012, serving authentic Greek cuisine.
One of the most popular items on the menu was the spanakopita, a spinach pie made from phyllo dough, spinach and feta cheese. The tzatziki, similar in taste to cucumber Greek yogurt, became a crowd favorite, along with the hummus. Regulars also kept coming back for the gyros.
“We were supported by the local community from the very first setup, which consisted of one tent and two tables,” Pappas said.
With time, regulars began asking for more complex Greek dishes and booking the company for catering jobs. Pappas realized that the demand was there for a permanent Athenian Grill location, but he didn’t have the funding. He turned to Kickstarter, an online crowd-funding platform, and set a goal to raise $15,000. The campaign ran from May 8 – June 19 of this year and raised a total of $18,205.
“Kickstarter gave me the proof that people wanted to see this happen,” Pappas said.
During this time, a family member showed him a potential location for the restaurant – the former home of Belle’s Bakery. The location is tucked away on South Ashland, just across the street from Starbucks. When Pappas pulled into the driveway, there was a For Lease sign in the yard.
“I left the house that morning not planning to have a restaurant, and by the night time I had the keys,” Pappas said. “That was in June.”
With the location resolved, he then contracted local architecture firm alt32 to design and alter the location. Initially, the plans focused on resolving space issues and ensuring everything was up to code.
“We’ve done a lot of the work ourselves, which has been a fun experiment,” said Rebecca Cox, a designer and architect on the project. “We ripped out a lot of walls and ceilings and opened everything up.”
The company puts an emphasis on sustainability, and as a result repurposed many of the materials broken down during construction. For example, an upstairs table was made from wood pulled out of the ceilings. The decorative wall of wooden slats was constructed from lath once buried in plaster. Even the casework was made from reclaimed materials. The firm also put a heavy emphasis on creating ambience with their design.
“I think of it as theatrical set design,” Cox said. “You’re going into a space to have an experience. Thas our goal here. Create a feeling, an ambience and a nice space for the community.”
The finished product is cozy and transparent, as customers can see every detail of the cooking process from the moment they walk in. There are just three tables downstairs, with outdoor seating available as well. Upstairs, the chef’s table can be reserved for parties of six, where guests can enjoy an exclusive dinner created and served by Pappas.
The upstairs area will also serve as a Greek market, which will stock items such as coffee, spices and olive oil – all authentically Greek. It will also offer in-house selections, such as family-sized desserts and hummus.
Pappas is excited at the opportunity to offer a greater variety of Greek cuisine to his customers than he could supply from the food stand. “The menu on the grill is four or five times bigger,” Pappas said. “We’re adding more desserts, more dips, main entrees – famous Greek entrees, traditional – and we’re having sides like lemon potatoes, rice and roasted vegetables.”
Some of those Greek entrees include moussaka, an eggplant and meat dish; Greek beef stew on roasted lemon potatoes; and pastitisio, a Greek lasagna dish. “From beginning to end, we want to serve quality, fresh, authentic Greek food, as fast as possible,” Pappas said.