For the Tziotis family, Plaka Estiatorio is not just a labor of love, it's an expression of their family, their heritage, and their desire to give people an authentic taste of Greece.
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Feeding people: an immigrant family affair
In April, Ballard restaurant Plaka Estiatorio celebrated their three year anniversary, and they are as busy as they have been since day one, when they completely sold out two hours before closing.
Tucked away on 20th Avenue N.W., Plaka on any given night is crowded, loud, sometimes a tad bit chaotic, and wonderfully homey. Guests feel as welcome here as they do at their parents' dinner table at Thanksgiving.
Plaka is named after an old district of Athens, which was once a gathering place for free thinkers who roamed the marble lined streets below the great walls of the Acropolis. Today, the labyrinth of the streets are filled with the welcoming sounds of music and chattering of locals and tourists drawn to the quarter by the wafting scents of grilled meats, fresh seafood, and roasted garden vegetables.
The Ballard restaurant gives visitors a taste of Plaka in both the foods and the atmosphere. Bricks are exposed on the walls, the old wooden floor dates back to 1909, customers sit at stained wooden tables while waiters and staff yell back-and-forth in a foreign language, and fresh produce piles out of baskets in front of the open kitchen, emulating a market stall.
The walls are covered in family photos, and the smiling faces in the frames are the same friendly faces taking your order.
Plaka is owned and run by the Tziotis family - Host and server Yiannis, Chef Katarina, server Ourania (or Nia), and kitchen understudy/server Dometios.
"Mom's the chef but we all give a helping hand where one is needed," said Nia.
For the family, Plaka is not just a labor of love, it's an expression of their family, their heritage, and their desire to give people an authentic taste of Greece.
"In here, we're still in Plaka," said Yiannis while rolling silverware for the evening.
April also marked Yiannis' 45th anniversary of being in the U.S..
"1967. I was 16 then and now I'm grandpa," he said.
Initially flipping burgers in his brother's diner, Yiannis later got a chance to travel as a musician. For many years he was the percussionist in a band that played at Greek clubs all over the country. On his first trip to the Pacific Northwest his band played a gig in the Greek village in downtown Seattle. Here he met a lovely Greek woman, Katarina, and soon came out to stay.
Like Yiannis, Katarina came to the U.S. at a young age. She was only 11 when her parents decided to move to the U.S. to join their already immigrated family.
"They went with the 'If we don't like it, we can move back' attitude. Many years later, this is our home now," said Katarina, adding that her father, an "Athenian outdoorsman", was immediately drawn to Seattle.
"When we came here, we did what most immigrants do - feed people," Katarina said.
Katarina grew up in her parents diner. As the only English speaker in the house she started to help run the business at the age of 12, spending all her free time at her parents' restaurants.
"Many immigrants started in the restaurant business because it's easy," explained Yiannis. "In the kitchen, you don't have to speak the language."
But Yiannis and Katarina never intended to own a restaurant of their own. That was their daughter's idea.
"My childhood friends often ate my house and kept saying how much they missed my mother's cooking," Nia recalled. "Everyone loved her cooking."
Yiannis explained that prior to the restaurant they would have big dinners for friends and family. They would travel 'home' in search of the authentic smells and flavors Katarina remembered from being a kid.
"I got really into [the local cuisines] when we travelled. I wanted to capture the flavors and I wanted to recreate it as close as possible," she said.
Upon returning from their travels, Katarina would experiment on their friends and family.
"I really wanted to show people what Greek food is all about. And here we are, three years later, and I am offering what I have learned from my travels," she said.
"We like to party, we like to eat, and we like to entertain," added Yiannis. And with that philosophy they continue to operate the restaurant.
At Plaka, they feed their customers as if they were family using authentic Greek ingredients directly imported from Greece, as well as fresh produce from the Ballard farmers market.
"We take no short cuts. Everything is imported from Greece, or seasonal from the market," Yiannis said. "If we eat it, you're going to eat it, too."
The family members themselves eat at the restaurant daily and each person has their own favorite dishes.
Yiannis loved the greek macaroni, 'Macaronada" with caramelized garlic, cheese, and olive oil; Nia likes the seasonal dandelion greens and lamb chops; and Katarina especially likes her grilled octopus skewers and the incredibly popular lamb riblets.
Clearly others appreciate these dishes, too, as the walls proudly display articles, recognitions, and awards.
With business doing well, Yiannis and Katarina hope to get some more free time to travel back to Greece and discover it all over again, and to come back with new recipes.
For more information about the restaurant, and the seasonal specials, visit http://www.plakaballard.com
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