At the turn of the millennium, Greek restaurants, bars, and clubs were unmistakable presences in Portland’s nightlife. Satyricon was ground zero for the city’s underground rock scene; the club, owned by George Touhouliotis, has since entered into legend for being the place where Kurt Cobain met Courtney Love, and where Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters played their first-ever live show. The late-night souvlaki window was, for years, the place to soak up booze after a night on the town.
Berbati’s Pan, owned by the Papaiouannou family, held shows by the likes of My Morning Jacket and the Decemberists, while the adjoining Berbati restaurant and bar was the fulcrum of the downtown drinking scene that centered around Southwest 2nd and Ankeny Alley. Greek Cusina, at Southwest 4th and Washington, was the place for ouzo toasts and plate smashing, provided you weren’t too intimidated by the threat of the building collapsing or going up in flames. The beleaguered nightspot, owned by Ted Papas and made iconic by the purple inflatable octopus that hung outside, violated fire and structural codes for months before its unceremonious closure on January 1, 2010.
On the Eastside, the best bet for a quick lunch was Foti’s Greek Deli, a wonderfully friendly (and wallet-friendly) place that changed hands in December 2011, when owners Foti and Jill Kosmas retired and transferred the business to their nephew Pantelis Kosmas, who operated it as Mad Greek Deli before his death in 2016. (The business still operates under that name.) Further out in Lents, the New Copper Penny nightclub, owned by Saki Tzantarmas, had items like Greek Steak and Athenian Chicken on its varied menu, and established its own tradition of late-night shenanigans before closing and being demolished to make room for apartments.
While Portland has embraced a huge variety of cuisines from around the world during its rapid growth in the past few years, the once-prominent Greek flavor of the city’s food and drink scene has receded.
The roots of Greek cuisine go back thousands of years, of course, but it was never a particularly unified tradition to begin with. Ancient Greece was a land of autonomous city-states separated by rocky mountains and crashing sea, and over the years, the distinct regional differences accentuated their foods. Once modern Greece became the unified nation we know today—celebrating its autonomy from the Ottoman Empire in 1828—Greek immigrants started to travel in large numbers to America, bringing their individual traditions to the new world, where they became inextricably linked with the United States’ budding restaurant culture. Many of the first restaurateurs in America came from Greek backgrounds, but rather than impose their homeland’s dishes on their American customers, they adapted and absorbed American tastes and cooking techniques, creating a unique marriage between old world and new.
The diner—perhaps the quintessential American type of restaurant—became ubiquitous, particularly in the Northeast, after large numbers of Greeks made their way to America during the first half of the 20th century. Greek ingenuity and malleability can still be seen in those diners’ encyclopedia-sized menus, with page after page boasting every kind of dish imaginable, not just the expected Hellenic fare.
Portland’s own restaurant tradition has more in common with the old west than it does with the New York metropolitan area, and Greeks were among the first to open restaurants in pioneer towns and budding cities like San Francisco. At the end of the 19th century, there were more restaurants per person in the western half of the US than there were in the east or south, mostly due to all of the unmarried male laborers without wives at home to cook their meals. The first Greeks in Oregon found work selling fruits and vegetables, and as a Greek American population began to grow in Portland during the 1920s, a kafeneio (coffeehouse) culture emerged.
It took several more decades, however, for the dishes that we often think of as idiomatic of Greek cuisine—souvlaki, moussaka, spanakopita—to make their way onto Portland menus. When Alexis Restaurant opened in 1981, the Oregonian reported it was the first place in the city to serve fried calamari. That restaurant, one of Portland’s best Greek eateries, closed in 2016, following a years-long trend that also witnessed the shuttering of Greek Cusina, Foti’s, and Berbati’s Pan. Famed jazz club Jimmy Mak’s—renowned for hosting performances from national jazz luminaries—also had a limited a menu that echoed owner Jimmy Makarounis’ Greek heritage; the club held its final show on December 31, 2016, and Makarounis died two days later.
Still, there are a few remaining spots with excellent Greek food, even as Yelp! searches and the like will often point you to nonspecific “Mediterranean” fare. While it’s true that the cuisine of neighboring countries like Lebanon and Syria shares many qualities with Greek food—even down to specific dishes—these wholly Greek places are some of your best choices for the real deal.
Eleni’s Philoxenia | 112 NW 9th
Named for chef Eleni Touhouliotis, Eleni’s Philoxenia is the second of Touhouliotis’ Portland-area restaurants specializing in Greek cuisine (Eleni’s Estiatorio in Sellwood closed in 2014). Philoxenia is a Greek word roughly translating as “kindness to strangers,” and the Pearl District spot emphasizes food from Crete, the largest island in the Aegean Sea. As such, Eleni’s menu is packed with seafood, including calamari, shellfish, and prawns, alongside plates like dolmathakia, gigandes, kouneli stifatho (rabbit), and Cretan-style risotto.
Dorio Café and Taverna | 1037 NW 23rd
All the usual suspects make up Dorio’s traditional Greek menu, from hummus plates to spanakopita to a variety of gyros. It’s worth checking out the tyropites, AKA thin sheets of filo pastry filled with cheese, and saving room for baklava or chocopites—more film filled with ganache—served with ice cream.
A Taste of Greek | 321 SW 2nd
While downtown lunch staple Greek Express sadly disappeared when its digs closed to make way for the new, upscale Portland Food Hall, the proprietor is still going strong at the A Taste of Greek food cart just up the street. This is a great place for a quick, light lunch, with falafel, gyros, and Greek salad all making solid choices—or go big with a super lamb gyro or the lamb platter with rice, and take a nap at your desk.
Overlook Restaurant | 1332 N Skidmore
Much like the Greek diners found in the Northeast US, you can get virtually anything under the sun at Jim and Jane Sassalos’ charming neighborhood restaurant, including breakfast, T-bone steaks, and all kinds of sandwiches. But a chunk of Overlook’s sprawling menu is devoted to Greek dishes, including moussaka, pastitchio (a meaty, baked mac and cheese dish), and Greek meatballs.
Angelina’s Greek Gyros| 112 NW Couch
Angelina’s has been serving up Greek food at Portland Saturday Market for years, and in 2014 opened a full-time storefront in Old Town serving up the same delicious gyros. The ingredients are always fresh and crisp, and the menu boasts other fun items like a Mediterranean twist on chicken and waffles (the waffles are falafel cooked in a waffle iron) and the seductively named “Meat Boat.”
Portland Greek Festival | NE 32nd & Glisan
Every year at the end of September/beginning of October, the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral hosts Portland’s annual Greek festival, and it’s the best option to gorge on traditional Greek food. Dinners include dishes like kota riganati, dolmathes, and pastitsio, and the festival also hosts a makeshift kafenio where you can get loukoumades—delicious honey dumplings that are the Greek analogue to fried dough. The Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral also hosts the Hellenic American Cultural Center and Museum, where you can learn about Greek Americans and their history in the Pacific Northwest.