The olive oil that is the main ingredient in nearly every recipe at Grecian Gardens in West Columbia is not one you can just grab off the shelf at a grocery store.
The Koutrakos family – who started the restaurant 30 years ago – still grow olives on the family’s rural farmland in Greece. When the olives are picked, they are taken to a local processing plant where they are cold-pressed and made into oil. It is then shipped from Athens, Greece, to Charleston or Savannah, Ga., before being delivered directly to Grecian Gardens.
“It’s just an organic product – it’s so thick and rich and strong,” said Anastasia Koutrakos Crocker, whose father, Alex, manages the restaurant. “The olive oil at other restaurants almost tastes like vegetable oil compared to ours. It’s just such good quality; I think that makes the difference in our food.”
That oil is then used in the restaurant’s top menu items, such as the Greek potatoes, housemade hummus and the house special Greek roasted chicken.
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“If you come in Grecian Gardens and you aren’t sure what to get, hands down, you can’t go wrong with the roasted chicken,” Koutrakos Crocker said.
Each table at the restaurant is served a basket of warm, fresh-baked bread made from a secret family recipe. The same dough used for the bread also is used to make the restaurant’s many popular pizzas. The house salad is topped with, among other cold-cuts, a housemade roast beef. Even the pepperoncini used on the Greek salads and pizzas is imported from Greece.
And all salad dressings are made in-house using that famous family olive oil – which, by the way, is sold in bottles in the restaurant.
“We don’t take shortcuts on anything,” Koutrakos Crocker said. “We start everything from the beginning.”
How did Grecian Gardens get its start?
Alex Koutrakos and his brothers emigrated to the United States in the 1960s and moved to South Carolina after operating a taxicab business and then a tire store in New York City. Alex and the brothers – Gus, Nick and George – opened Grecian Gardens in what was then rural West Columbia in 1985.
Alex and his family actually lived next door to Grecian Gardens for 18 years, Koutrakos Crocker said.
“My dad worked all the time, tirelessly, at the restaurant, making sure that the quality of the food and the customer service were always the best they could be,” Koutrakos Crocker said. “There’s a story that one time he went over to get my mom a Diet Coke and came back eight hours later.”
Operating a Greek restaurant in South Carolina in the 1980s did require making adjustments to some traditional Greek food, however.
“Customers would order gyros and we served them with tzatziki but people were like, ‘What is this yogurt with onions and cucumbers?’ ” Koutrakos Crocker said. “So they came up with a garlic mayonnaise sauce, and we used that for 20 years. Now we give the option for both.”
On Thursday, Oct. 1, Grecian Gardens celebrated 30 years in business – even the cook has been there 29 years and six months.
In honor of the occasion, through Monday, Nov. 30, the Koutrakoses are offering customers the chance to be entered in a drawing for in a drawing for two airline tickets to Greece.
What does the place look like?
The family-style restaurant follows the Greek theme throughout with its famous life-size Greek goddess statue greeting guests as they enter the main dining space.
Arched doorways and mirrors and Greek-style columns frame the space, and hanging ivy and pottery adorn the walls. Surprisingly, the restaurant can seat up to 400 but does so in separate, intimate dining spaces.
Who eats here?
When your restaurant has been in business in the same location for 30 years, who hasn’t eaten here?
Grecian Gardens sees families, professionals and seniors and has perhaps its highest draw of customers at Sunday lunch, Koutrakos Crocker said.
LOCATION: 2312 Sunset Blvd., West Columbia
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
PRICES: Most Greek dinners average $11 a plate; large dinner salads are $9; Greek sandwiches are around $7.
INFO: (803) 794-7552, www.greciangardenssc.com