Friday, April 19, 2013

[EID Feature] Santorini Estiatorio: Preserving Greek Culture in Greektown

All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

Awhile back, I interviewed Athina Papas when the former Mosaic reopened as Santorini Estiatorio, an open, airy space that channels the warm, sun-soaked Mediterranean island of Santorini in its curves and colors. As a new participating restaurant in the 2013 Spring Edition of Detroit Restaurant Week, I felt it was time to go back and share the story of Santorini.

The Papas family is a family of long-time Greektown entrepreneurs (the family currently owns Pegasus locations in Greektown and Saint Clair Shores, Pappy's Sports Bar in Greektown, and has ownership in Greektown's Atheneum Suites). Athina Papas and her sister Stella followed in their parents' footsteps when they went off on their own and opened Mosaic in 2005, both in their twenties and looking for the kind of environment that appealed to them and their friends. Mosaic was known as a hotspot for the see-and-be-scene crowd, with a gorgeous bar that appealed to trendy sensibilities and regular DJ nights and lounge events.

But that was almost 10 years ago, and the girls have grown up.

"We see the differences now and then in how we’ve grown up," Athina says. "We were more focused on [dining and DJs] with Mosaic. Now what we want to create is something that’s going to last longer. We're getting away from entertainment [element] and [are focused more on] interacting with people, with family." Now 32 years old, Athina wanted to recreate the more of that convivial family dining experience she remembered having growing up and being with her family at her parents' restaurant Pegasus, a staple of Greektown and, until recently, one of the few truly Greek restaurants left. Now that she's older, she's also more passionate about preserving the Greek culture that is her background.

"Being the next generation came into play," she says. "When we opened Mosaic we had seven Green restaurants in Greektown, and one was family. The market was already saturated. We didn't want to compete, but be different. But as the years progressed, more and more restaurants were closing and the Greek items [at Mosaic] were selling the most. That kind of told us people are still coming to Greektown for Greek food. Now there's only three Greek restaurants here and we're all getting older, and we remember how much fun it was having family dinner [at Pegasus] on Sundays, when everybody would know each other because people were all coming down here to this really thriving area."

For Athina and her siblings, it's that feeling of community that they're trying to preserve; one that was, until recently, all but lost. "We don't want to talk about Greektown and how cool it was. What will it be in 15 years? If we can preserve that history and culture not just for Greeks but for everyone – we wanted to take a stand and really be part of the process to bring back the culture of Greektown."

Saganaki feta.

The longevity of Pegasus, which has been open since 1981, is something that really speaks to Athina. This is a place people come to on dates, on birthdays and anniversaries, for prom, for Tigers games, and just for a night out with family. It's casual, comfortable, and is associated with positive memories for many people throughout metro Detroit. "People still remember Pegasus from when the streets were packed every night," says Athina. "The atmosphere is for everyone. [We know we] can't be everything to everyone but we want everyone to feel comfortable."

Santorini Estiatorio is Mosaic reborn. If Pegasus is the old-school family-style Greek restaurant, Santorini is its more refined cousin – the design is more airy and stylish (evoking the sand and surf of Santorini), the menu more contemporary, but it is still wholly, 100% Greek. A true Greek restaurant in Greektown, just with more modern sensibilities. "We're really focused on getting people to enjoy to every part of the Greek experience," Athina explains. "We're using Greek liqueurs and growing a Greek wine list; we want it to be quality wine and a good experience."

Lunch and dinner menus include a large selection of traditional and contemporary Greek dishes – it's a big menu with a lot to choose from, but do check out the saganaki feta (wrapped in phyllo dough and drizzled with Greek honey), the lamb burger (with tzaziki sauce and red onion), and the excellent marinated octopus. (And I'm definitely eyeing the original Greek pizza for a future trip.) For Detroit Restaurant Week, check out their menu here.

Opening a Greek restaurant isn't the only thing Athina is doing to support the preservation of Greek culture and heritage in Greektown. She has also been involved with the newly-opened Hellenic Museum, working with them on fundraisers and other events. She's also seeing more second- and third-generation young people who remember going to Greece in the summer as kids and who want to keep those memories alive getting more involved in preserving the culture, from the Greek Independence Day Parade which started out with 500 people and has grown to 4,000, to involvement with other Greek cultural institutions and events.

"First and foremost, people clearly still come down [to Greektown for Greek culture]. When there’s an event going on the Greek restaurants are the first to get jammed. People are still coming down here for that atmosphere and for those things." She recalls the days when the streets of Greektown were filled with people and music and parties, a continuous celebration of Greek culture late into the night (and early into the morning) for Greeks and non-Greeks alike. "If we all work together [we can] bring back some of those cultural events. It [took] us as a generation to say, 'Hey, we want to keep this.' From that aspect we can bring some of that stuff back. The environment has changed, but that doesn't mean it can't keep changing."

 Santorini Estiatorio on Urbanspoon