One of the first Greek coffeeshops to hit Astoria is set to open a branch in Brooklyn. Can it match the acclaim of the original, which baked the wedding cake for a Hollywood hit (guess which one)?
In the Greek coffeeshop he opened 35 years ago, John Arvanitis sits at a table. While he talks, one hand flaps animatedly as the other busies itself on his cell phone. “Hi, George,” he calls across the café in his heavy Greek accent as a regular walks in. “That’s George, he’s a dentist,” Arvanitis explains, then plunges back into his story.
It won’t be the only time Arvanitis interrupts himself to greet a customer walking through the door. Many of them have been coming here for more than three decades, since Arvanitis opened Omonia Café. He says (and no one seems to argue with him) that Omomia was the first Greek café in Astoria, a neighborhood that today is bursting at the seams with Mediterranean coffeeshops.
Another regular, Fotios Demopoulos, steps into the café with a nod in Arvanitis’ direction. He hardly glances at the picture of the wedding cake from the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding – baked by Arvanitis here at Omonia – which is displayed proudly on the door. Demopoulos has seen it hundreds of times before. He heads for a table near the window.
The sun streams in through the café’s floor-to-ceiling windows. The smell of coffee beans grinding and baked pastry browning wafts teasingly from the kitchen. It’s about as close to the Mediterranean as you can get in Queens.
“I’ve known this store since it first opened, and after 30 years I’m still coming here,” says Demopoulos, who stops in five or six times a week. “Hey John,” he yells to Arvanitis, his voice rising above the hum of churning machinery and chatting customers. “I said I feel like I own the place here. That’s how comfortable I am.”
For Arvanitis, this is mission accomplished. When he first arrived in Astoria in 1974, he found himself surrounded by Greek immigrants in a neighborhood filled with familiar language and customs. But he felt there was something missing.
“For years I was here and there was no café – not like Greece, not a place like this. [In Greece] you go out every night – you see people, you talk to girls, it’s the Greek tradition. When I came here I missed that,” Arvanitis says. So in 1977, he opened a small café where Greek people could enjoy the coffee, cuisine and culture of their home country.
Now Omonia Café is twice the size, has an American-style bakery offshoot and is soon to become parent to a newly refurbished branch in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, scheduled to open later this month.
Arvanitis says he has 20 calls a day from people wanting to know exactly when the Brooklyn café is opening, so he is confident the new store will be as popular as the original. “I’m the oldest place in Astoria, and I’m famous, and people know Omonia is Omonia,” he says.
This is why, Arvanitis believes, the producers of My Big Fat Greek Wedding approached him to create the cake used in the movie. “They wanted it with a Greek theme, and I said, ‘Hey, I can do that.’” Arvanitis designed and baked a white cake whose three tiers were held up with ancient Greek columns. He now gets between five and 10 cake orders a week, many of which are decorated with traditional Greek motifs.
Greek heritage is deep at Omonia Café’s core. Its menu boasts sweet Mediterranean delicacies such as baklava, a honey-drenched filo pastry stuffed with chopped nuts, and ekmek kataifi, a cream-covered dessert of shredded pastry topped with nuts.
“I love the ekmek kataifi,” says Antonikis Glykis, who comes to Omonia three or four times a week with his wife, Niki. He lives in Highland Park, Brooklyn, but he’s been getting his coffee at Omonia for 30 years, and he’s not about to stop now.
But the Astoria today is a different neighborhood than the Greek-dominated area Arvanitis discovered when he moved to New York. “When I started this business in 1977, Astoria was 95 percent Greek,” he says. “Now it’s different, it’s international, it has everybody. But it’s better now than before – the young people come, they eat, they spend money. Even though [Astoria] is less Greek, my business is much better. I have all nationalities coming here to taste the food.”
Although many customers still come for a taste of Greek cuisine, Arvanitis decided he should cater to the widening range of taste buds coming through his door. So last year he opened Omonia Next Door, an American-style bakery attached to the coffeeshop. It serves desserts such as cheesecake, cupcakes and gelato.
Maren Ritter and Caitlin Evans, both 23, live a few buildings down from Omonia Café. “We rely on these desserts when we have a bad day,” Ritter says. “I get the chocolate-covered strawberries or the mini cupcakes, and she gets red velvet cheesecake every time.”
Neither Ritter nor Evans comes from a Mediterranean background, but they like living among Greek people and their friendly, family values. “Clearly we’re not Greek, but they take very good care of us – it’s not like you’re going into this other community. They’re very welcoming.”
Arvanitis ambles over to a table of customers, phone in hand, to show off a picture of his 9-year-old son. “This is my little one, Peter,” he says. “He [takes] after me. That’s the one I hope takes over the business some day.”
His older two children, 18 and 19 years old, are less enthusiastic about running the restaurant and more interested in hanging out there with friends on the weekend and eating their way through the café’s supplies, Arvanitis says. He has put his nephew in charge of managing the Brooklyn café.
From his immediate relatives to his loyal customers, Arvanitis is at the heart of one Big Fat Greek family – and it’s only getting bigger.