Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Early History of Greek Restaurants in Boston

According to the Boston Globe, January 3, 1916, the annual report of the Licensing Board noted that there were 1816 restaurants and cafes in Boston. 810 of those restaurants were run by “native Americans,” which didn't refer to indigenous people. In second place, Russian owned restaurants accounted for 218 places and maybe surprisingly to some, Greek owners occupied third place with 211 restaurants and cafes. Italians came in fourth with 108 spots.

To be clear, these figures indicated the ethnicity of the owners but not necessarily the nature of the cuisine these restaurants and cafes offered. So, not all of the Greek owned places served Greek cuisine. According to Dining Out in Boston: A Culinary History by James O'Connell, "Many were simple lunch counters that served basic American fare with a few Greek specialties, like avgolemono (chicken-lemon) soup, roast lamb and rice, and stuffed vine leaves.” O'Connell continued, "Lunch counters became favored business opportunities for Greek immigrants because they were relatively inexpensive to start up and did not require the most advanced culinary skills to operate.

The New England Historical Society stated that, "In 1890 came the first great wave of Greek immigrants. They were 90 percent male, extremely poor and looking for work." Their article continued, "Between 1890 and 1924, more than 400,000 Greeks arrived in the United States." It was only natural that some of those Greeks would open Greek restaurants, so that the immigrants could enjoy the taste of home. And like numerous other immigrants, a number of the first Greek restaurants, which primarily served Greek cuisine, catered mainly to Greeks and not others.

For example, the Fall River Daily Globe, April 18, 1908, published an article about the new Greek restaurants in New York City, noting “…the Greek restaurants which derive their support chiefly from their own population assisted by other patronage, which showed that they are growing in popularity.” The Greek population has exploded over the last several years. “A few years ago the number did not exceed 500, but now it is 15,000 at least and seems to be a thriving element in our population.” The article mentioned that “.., the most popular dish is lamb with macaroni, but, as it is rather expensive, veal is often a substitute, and when cooked with artichokes, is almost a delicacy.” In addition, it noted that "… this café life is almost a national custom.”

A more detailed description of Greek restaurants was presented in a lengthy article in the Boston Globe, May 7, 1911. The article, titled Delights of a Greek Menu, was subtitled Concoctions Strange to New Englanders Are Enjoyed by Greeks in Boston Restaurants Patronized by Sons of Athens—Games and Entertainment Always an Adjunct to Greek Eating Places. It was noted that there were about 6,000 Greeks living in Boston and “... the chiefs of their imported habits is eating.” It was also mentioned that  “No American who has ever sampled Grecian culinary morsels in the local restaurants has left without a very surfeited feeling and word of praise, but knowledge of the language is necessary to the experience, so that the Yankee patrons are few.” As such, the Greek restaurants were primarily relying on other Greeks for most of their patronage, although others enjoyed the cuisine if they only tried it.

The article continued, "There are a few restaurants in the city, centering around Kneeland and Commercial sts, and though several times an effort has been made to start one for American patronage the projectors of the idea have tried to strike an average between American and Greek cookery and the result has been disastrous to the enterprise.” Why was that so? “One reason is that the mecca of the Greek is his restaurant, and he will not eat at a place where he cannot smoke and play games when the inner man has ceased to trouble him in respect to appetite.

For Greeks, a  restaurant was referred to as a xenodokeion, literally "a place for receiving guests.” however when they operated a restaurant primarily for the American trade, it was referred to as an estitorion, an "eating house." The social aspect of the restaurant was extremely important to Greeks, and might have even been more important than the food. Greeks also owned lesche, a "coffee house," but though they served coffee, confections, and liquors, they also stressed playing games, like pool and billiards.

Much of the rest of the article described a number of foods that could be found at Greek restaurants, from Yaghurtl (yogurt) to Agenpilaff (with a recipe for this dish, which is basically chicken pilaf). There's even mention of a Greek liqueur, noting,"Masticha is the appetizer, a triple distillation from an Athenian grape that is water white, tastes reminiscently of paregoric, and, especially if not too sweet, goes better when diluted with water, which clouds it up into a milky liquid

It's difficult to determine the identity of the first Greek restaurant in the Boston area. The first reference I found to a Greek restaurant in Massachusetts was in the Lowell Sun, September 12, 1898, which briefly mentioned a Greek restaurant, located on Market Street, where the police seized illegal beer. In Boston itself, the first mention I located was in the Boston Daily Globe, January 12, 1903, where a Greek restaurant, located at 32 Kneeland Street, was raided by police and 14 people were arrested for illegal gaming. The Boston Herald, November 30, 1904, mentioned a  Greek restaurant, at 190 Commercial Street, which was also raided for illegal gaming.

There was a brief mention of a Greek restaurant at 28 Kneeland Street in the Boston Herald, May 20, 1905. The Boston Post, May 1, 1908, presented a notice that Lampros Colocatronis was severing his connection as copartner in a Greek restaurant, “Cosmos,” located at 12 Kneeland Street. This was the first Greek restaurant I found that was named in the newspapers. We also have the Boston Herald, December 25, 1910, mentioning a Greek restaurant, owned by Peter Christodolou, which was situated at 122 Harrison Avenue. The Boston Journal, September 18, 1911, noted there was a Greek restaurant at 102 Richmond Street.

According to Dining Out in Boston: A Culinary History by James O'Connell, “The beachhead for first-rate Greek cooking in Boston was the Athens-Olympia Café (1915), on Stuart Street in the Theater District. It attracted expatriates as well as theatergoers, businessmen, and budget-eating college students. It was said that Isabella Stewart Gardner dined there. The house specialty was souvlaki à l’orientale—barbecued lamb, peppers, onions, and tomatoes on skewers. The Cocoris family managed the restaurant until the late 1980s, when the decline of the Theater District brought down the Athens-Olympia.”

Although must of that information is accurate, the date of the founding of the Athens-Olympia Café, 1915, isn't correct. The earliest reference I found to Cocoris and a restaurant was in a legal notice in the Boston Globe, July 5, 1919. John D. Cocoris applied for a license to sell “intoxicating liquors” as a Victualler at 694 Washington Street. The name of the restaurant wasn't provided in the notice. The Boston Globe, March 19, 1954, mentioned that Cocoris came to the U.S. in 1905, when he was 16 years old. So, in 1919, he was around 30 years old.

The Boston Herald, November 23, 1919, provided the identification of the Greek restaurant in an advertisement for the Athens Café, located at 694 Washington Street. And without humility, they proclaimed they were the "Leading Greek Restaurant in American." However, it was also noted that they served Greek, American and Oriental food.

We later learned in the Boston Herald, September 17, 1922, that the proprietor of the Athens Cafe was Strate A. Kelly although the Boston Globe, December 25, 1925, reported that an involuntary petition in bankruptcy was filed against John D. Corcoris, doing business as the Athens Café. Three Boston creditors claimed they were owed a total of $1509. Next, the Boston Globe, November 27, 1926, had a: For Sale ad for 6 pool tables and 1 billiard table, noting that the Athens Cafe was being forced to vacate. They were apparently still in operation in December as the Boston Globe, December 12, 1926, reported on a liquor raid on the Café. Agents seized over 40 bottles of liquor and charged Strate A. Kelley, an Armenian, with illegally selling alcohol.

With the closing of the Athens Cafe, what did John Cocoris do? A brief notice in the Boston Herald, February 10, 1927, mentioned that John Cocoris, who was recently back from Florida and the former manager of the Athens Café, was announcing the opening of the Olympia Café

The Boston Herald, February 15, 1927, presented an advertisement for the new Olympia Cafe, located at 51 Stuart Street. 

A more descriptive advertisement was in the Boston Herald, December 31, 1927, noting that Cocoris had previously been the manager at the Athens Cafe.

At some point, Cocoris changed the name of his restaurant from the Olympia Cafe to the Athens-Olympia Cafe. The Boston Herald, December 13, 1931, had the first advertisement I found with this name change. So, the Athens-Olympia Cafe may have roots extending back to 1915, as the Athens Cafe on Washington Street where John Corcoris was the manager, but it wasn't until 1927 that John Cocoris opened the Olympia Cafe on Stuart Street, eventually changing the name to the Athens-Olympia. 

You can check out a menu from 1951 for the Athens-Olympia Cafe here. Less than half the menu has Greek dishes, the rest being standard American dishes. As one of the specials, you can see Souvlaki ala Oriental, Lamb on skewer with onion, pepper, and tomato. Other Greek dishes include Stuffed Vine Leaves and Tiropita (cheese pie), but you won't find items like Gyros, Moussaka, or Pastitsio.

Today, there are a number of excellent Greek restaurants in Boston. A few of my favorites include Committee, Krasi and GreCo. A couple other Boston Greek spots include Saloniki Greek and Kava Neo-Taverna, while you'll find Greek restaurants in lots of the surrounding communities too. Besides restaurants, you can also find some compelling Greek markets, like the Greek International Food Market in West Roxbury (which I'll be writing about in the near future). 

What's your favorite Greek restaurant? 

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