Stavros, who owns As Greek As It Gets in Cullinan, is my mother’s friend from high school. Well, he’s a guy that liked one of my mom’s friends in high school, and so they all formed part of a Matric-dance-going-crew in late 1960’s Pretoria.
(Handmade silver cord trimmed dresses and white shoes included).
Judging from the very posed but adorable black and white photos in my mother’s old photo album, he was also the epitome of a Greek Adonis. And a naughty one (which his stories of putting Eno on old gluttonous men’s sandwiches as a child confirms).
For me, he’s also the epitome of a good restaurant owner.
Heading Out To Cullinan: As Greek As It Gets
With that kind of charm unchanged over 50 years later, it’s no surprise that Stavros runs a Greek restaurant in a more offbeat part of town. How else do you get to eat great food and tell stories to people all day in such a relaxed setting?
We used to go to his old restaurant, The Greek Easy in Hatfield, when I was still at school. Often. Thickly cut roasted potato chips. Chicken bourekia (chicken breasts wrapped around feta cheese and served with a thick lemony sauce). Chicken souvlaki in pita. Tarama. Skordalia. The best.
Before the Gautrain happened he moved out to the Boardwalk Centre in Olympia in Pretoria East, and even though it was still good, it just wasn’t the same. It didn’t have the same personality that the Hatfield restaurant did (i.e. I don’t think the place suited his personality).
It took us a long time to make it out there, but we eventually did a few years ago for my mother’s birthday. And even though a long time might pass in between our visits, visiting the restaurant in Cullinan still feels like going back to that same homely environment in Hatfield (except this time there is outside seating).
When Eating is a True Social Experience
Any menu with an intro and a story on the first few pages says a lot about the owner, and the way he approaches making food and entertaining people.
Of course, you can’t please everyone, but if you’re patient, and understand that he’s actually always aware of everyone in the restaurant, you’ll not only get to eat delicious Greek food. You’ll also get the chance to talk to Stavros when he regularly makes the rounds.
Of course, we’ve known him for a long time, but I’ve seem him make a similar effort with everyone else. He chats to and greets a least ten people around you during the course of a short conversation (without being rude).
When last did you go to a restaurant where you actually talked to the owner, and even knew who he was in the first place? It’s the kind of experience that is invaluable to me, because when this happens, the meal becomes not just about eating and paying the bill, but actually savouring the experience (in more ways than one).
A Restaurant Owner with a Poet’s Soul
Anyone who shares a story about a hand-drawn pencil portrait in the front of a restaurant menu is someone who thinks a lot of people and life, and how it all fits together.
I like to think I do the same, so it was really interesting for me to read about how a particular portrait sketch made its way all the way from Cullinan (during the post war, rations and smuggling era), to Hydra on the Greek Islands, and all the way back again (again, according the story on the menu). Passed through his family, the portrait now sits above the mantelpiece in the first room of the old house where As Greek As It Gets is now (and where they make said amazing food in a kitchen the size of a 4×4).
And if that wasn’t enough, when I told Stavros I was a writer, he called me into his office to read and listen to all the other stories of his family that he’s compiling together in a long Word document. A very entertaining and descriptive mix of garlic stenches, raunchy revenge stories and a variety of Greek food recipes.
When my calamari arrived, I unfortunately had to leave his office to go and eat. He later rejoined us at our table with a poem.
It’s Important to Get Away From the City
I realised how important it is to get out and have these kinds of experiences, not only to eat, but also to get a different perspective on where you live.
Cullinan is only twenty minutes away from Pretoria, but it feels quite removed from the city, and is actually quite a significant place (especially considering the history of diamond mining and Italian POWs at Zonderwater).
The Frangelico on ice oat the end of the meal may have contributed to a hazy kind of nostalgia (post-meal liqueurs happen when you know the owner), but while driving home, I also thought how important it is to also get an insight into your own family’s past (by getting to know the people your parents spent time with long before they even met each other. Or you).
Even if that means having to go somewhere and also engage in someone’s else personal history.
An Insight into My Mother’s Pre-Me History
My mother also ran into some other men she knew from her teenage years while we were eating in the As Greek as it Gets courtyard, under the umbrellas and pod-dropping acacia trees.
Incidentally, they grew up around the corner from her, in the same area of Hatfield that is now just car dealerships and office blocks (around Pretorius and Stanza Bopape/Church Streets). She even dated one of them at some point (for only a short while though, apparently).
It’s funny how a part of your life that you feel is so significant at the time can become a bit of a distant memory- just judging from the way I feel about my own Matric dance. That is, unless you make an effort to reconnect with it by visiting the people who were also a part of it.
And if they’re the kind of person who writes racy novels and is good at telling stories, this kind of reconnection can be even more fun.