Orestis Stavrou and his wife, Ana Marie, admittedly had an advantage in making Santorini Cafe feel like home. It is, after all, located in a renovated house tucked away on far North Lamar Boulevard.
“We were ready to start our family so I think we wanted a family environment,” says Ana Marie of their search before opening the restaurant in January 2013. “We looked at other places but we weren’t into something commercial ... and it doesn’t get much more homey or cozy than this!”
Rise up the stairs, which are bright white and cobalt blue (the color combination found throughout the Cyclades islands), and enter the dining room to find a large photo of Santorini island's famous Oia vista. A beige tiled floor, curtained windows, and various wall relics and keepsakes create a charming atmosphere, as if you just entered the home of a Greek relative who is about to feed you very well.
As it turns out, that feeling is not all that far from the truth. On my first visit to Santorini Cafe, Orestis was visiting Greece, so his mom was running the restaurant. The lamb gyro I ordered came on a fresh, chewy pita, filled with tender, succulent meat, and topped with cooling tzatziki. I also couldn’t resist an order of crispy fries topped with crumbled feta.
But my meal didn’t end there. She brought out a cup of their creamy hummus for me to try (and it did not disappoint!). Next, a little bowl of their comforting Greek spaghetti, served with a beaming smile. And just when I thought the feast had ended, she emerged with a small plate of loukoumades, Greek beignets drizzled with honey and cinnamon.
Hospitality is nothing new for Orestis and his family. He grew up in Albania, near the border of Greece, then lived in various parts of Greece and Cyprus, working in restaurants, bars, and coffee shops since the age of 15. He moved to Austin in 2007 and met Ana Marie when he began working for her dad, Spiros Karamalegos, who owned Opa Coffee and Wine Bar on South Lamar.
“I like it here because I learn every day,” says Orestis. “And it’s easier here. When people are on vacation [in Greece], they are more pushy — ‘I want this, I want that.’ But here, it’s very nice. I like it.”
Now, for the first time running his own kitchen, Orestis has the freedom to do things his own way, taking the time and care to make everything just right.
“We don’t just put the lamb on the fire and take it off,” he says. “We give it time. It’s easy to just put it on the fire and it’s going to look like it’s ready to go, but the taste is going to be different.”
In an effort to keep everything as fresh and homemade as possible, Santorini Cafe offers a small menu, featuring traditional appetizers like spinach and cheese pies, dolmas, saganaki, and baked feta; entrees like pasticcio (Greek lasagna) and moussaka (Greek casserole made with layered eggplant, potatoes, beef, and bechamel); gyros with Orestis' famous tzatziki; salad; weekday lunch specials; and a couple more unique offerings, like omelets and pizza.
“When I was working at Opa, we had a pizza menu and people were loving it,” he says. “So we added it here to the menu. We do the crust here and we sell a lot — especially the lamb pizza.”
They also offer a selection of Greek beer and wine, potent Greek coffee, and, in addition to the loukoumades, they carry equally addictive baklava, which Orestis actually orders from a Greek company.
“Everybody thinks this is homemade, but I tell them the truth,” he says with a smile.
Many of their customers are regulars — either members of the couple's Greek church who come in to drink Greek coffee and play tavli (Greek backgammon) or neighbors from the surrounding Gracywoods and Walnut Creek areas.
“We have a lot of repeat customers, so you almost know what they want when they come in,” says Orestis. Almost on cue, a group walks in and is greeted with a heartfelt welcome.
“We’ve been so blessed because all our neighbors are so friendly and sweet,” says Ana Marie. “This is just such a great community. I think that’s what’s given us life in the last two and a half years.”