There is a warm summer wind blowing against my shoulder and I can feel the heat pressing against my skin.
Greek music fills the atmosphere around me as I look around to see the patio filled with people enjoying a Saturday afternoon outside.
I start to imagine myself looking over at the ocean until I am yanked out of my daydream by a noisy city bus zooming past the restaurant, Santorini.
Western culture surrounds us everywhere we go — it’s in our style of music, our clothing and even the food we eat. Often it takes a bit of effort to search for places where we can find a taste of another culture.
On the busy streets of Calgary, about 10 kilometres north of the downtown core, lies an unordinary small white and blue restaurant. It is covered in stone with baby blue trimming that runs along the top and down the sides of the exterior.
Santorini is a family-owned Greek restaurant that has called Calgary home for 30 years. Andreas and Maria Nicolaides have happily worked together to build Santorini into a place where locals can come and try authentic Greek food.
“The idea [came] from Andreas’s passion to educate people on Greek food,” Maria says,“This has been his dream.”
The menu — written in Greek— has a lot of foods local to Greece, including Saganaki (fried cheese), as well as a significant emphasis on lamb.
“In Greece, you’ll find more lamb than beef and it’s our number one dish here,” Andreas says.
Linda Garson, editor-in-chief for Culinare magazine explains it’s special for restaurants like Santorini to show characteristics of their ethnic background.“It’s lovely, it makes you want to visit the country, you learn things when you go there,” she says.
Garson also explains restaurants like Santorini help create diversity and culture in our city.“You learn new things when you go there,” she adds.
The interior of Santorini is filled with white walls with brown stone arches over the windows and blue wooden beams that run across the ceiling.
I’m sitting at a small brown table in the common area of the restaurant and I notice how intimate and comfy it feels with large windows that brighten up the room with natural sunlight.
To my right is a windowsill with three plants and a sculpture of Alexander the Great. On each wall hangs a variety of pictures of Greece and placed on shelves around the room are vases of Greek design.
Andreas says the inside is decorated this way to show how an old house in the villages of Greece may look.“It’s important that it stays that way,” he says, as I noticed the relaxing sound of soft Greek music playing in the background.
Garson says these small restaurants are important for our city. “It’s very traditional, it’s comforting.” She adds people don’t always want to be in restaurants that have a modern day look.
Andreas and Maria both moved to Canada from Greece — Maria with her family as a little girl, whereas Andreas made the decision to move after his first visit in the 1970’s. Married for 40 years, their love and commitment to each other has expanded to their restaurant.
As we sit at a table next to the coat rack, customers start to pour in. Andreas and Maria welcome their guests with smiles and you can feel the warmth of their energy spread around the room.
Their friendly personalities explain why they have built so many relationships with their customers.
“Our first customers are still coming in, but also their kids are now coming in too,” Andreas says. “Some nights we know everyone in here by their [first] name and the ones we don’t know we try to get to know,” he adds.
Maria comes walking back to our table holding up a white cloth napkin with a message written on it from lifelong customers.
The message reads, “Thanks for always looking out for us. Best food and service in Calgary.”
Andreas points at the table across from us and tells me of a young lady and her boyfriend who would constantly have dates at Santorini back when the restaurant first opened.
As the years progressed the couple continuously returned, and when they had children they would bring their children as well. “It was the kids that wrote this,” Maria says, still holding up the napkin.
The couple agrees that building relationships with their customers is what makes owning a restaurant enjoyable. Garson says customers love when places make you feel like family.
“You’re never a stranger because they’ll talk to you.”
She adds with that mentality — a small family owned businesses will continue to be successful because of the warm gratitude that awaits you at the door when you walk in.
Stepping outside Santorini's after saying goodbye to Andreas and Maria I find myself back in the craziness of western society. Already I long for the soft Greek music, stone arches and delicious food of the restaurant that made me feel like I was back in my own Grandma's kitchen.
- By Tawnya Plain Eagle