Family recipes keep restaurant thriving for 50 years
While there is certainly truth in the age-old adage that “times have changed,” Yiannis Greek Restaurant on Yale attributes its long-lasting legacy in Claremont to the fact that it hasn’t.
As the Claremont Village bursts with new economic life, and Claremont businesses come and go, Yiannis remains untouched.
Walking into the dimly lit restaurant today, the cedar storefront appears just as it did when the cafe-turned-Greek mainstay reopened in the 1970s, and the decorations and menu are also the same. Stella Gianakos’ famous homemade baklava remains as delicious as ever, hand prepared and baked to a fine golden brown courtesy of the 83-year-old on a daily basis.
Things haven’t changed, and that’s just fine for the Gianakos and their customers, who appreciate the continuity.
“The menu hasn’t changed here in years because there’s just no reason to mess with what works,” one regular commented. “Given a choice between Athenian-inspired democracy and these gyros, representative government is definitely the lesser.”
The Gianakos family celebrates 50 years of timeless tradition and success by continuing to share a little of the love that cements the close-knit Greek family with Claremont foodies. Creating a familial, traditional and consistent atmosphere for its customers, both in setting and menu, is an important staple of Greek family life and the Gianakos welcome their customers into that tradition.
“Greek food is very traditional and our menu is the same way. If you went to Greece, you would see that same menu,” said Greg Gianakos, who helps run the business along with brother Jim, who is currently taking a much-deserved vacation.
The Gianakos family takes pride and care in ensuring that their cuisine transports their customers on a culinary journey across the Mediterranean. The cornerstone of the business was built around the family’s rich Greek traditions, Mr. Gianakos says. Several of Yiannis’ winning recipes once graced the table at Gianakos family socials and holiday gatherings. The moussaka, still featured on Yiannis’ menu, was a staple on the dinner table at Easter time along with the red eggs that also adorned the devoted Greek family’s Easter setting.
“It symbolizes the blood of Christ,” Mr. Gianakos explained. “Greek families only paint red eggs.”
While regulars have come to know and love the menu’s traditional cuisine—devouring the restaurant’s flambéed goat cheese and herb-crusted pita bread as fast as they can get it—the Mediterranean hotspot sprouted out of different roots. John and Stella Gianakos purchased the small mom-and-pop, originally dubbed the Yale Cafe, in 1962. It wasn’t until 1972 that the pair changed Yale Cafe to Yiannis, or “John” in Greek. The shop was changed in an effort to make it appear like a traditional Grecian eatery with candlelight, tables covered by white linen and the soft strum of a mandolin in the background.
As customers were treated to the family’s favorite Greek recipes in the front, behind the scenes the shop remained equally rooted in family. The Gianakos sons have helped their parents out over the years, doing everything from washing dishes to cleaning up to cooking.
“It was just like being at home,” Mr. Gianakos said. “There was that family feel of being together.”
Greg and Jim continue to earn their keep as head of Yiannis’ operations, though their mom is still happy to help out. In turn, they are pleased to keep and maintain the shop they grew up in. Artifacts from their trips to Greece such as masks, plates depicting Greek history and a pair of dancing shoes are in place along the shop walls. The only additions are Jim’s framed pictures of Greece, which add to the ambiance and remind the brothers of old family vacations. One picture shows one of the family’s trips to a small island off of the Greek mainland, evoking a strong reaction from Mr. Gianakos, who remembers the simplistic living of the island’s inhabitants.
“There was only one car on the island, and it was the trash truck. There are only donkeys and horses. There was no electricity,” he recalled. “I can only stay about 5 days because by 8 or 9 o’clock at night you have to be really situated because it’s pitch black.”
While the menu remains the same, Mr. Gianakos feels the tastes have only gotten better with time and modifications, inspired by dishes he has sampled in his travels. While paying homage to Yiannis’ timeless traditions, he hopes the flavors of its dishes continue to evolve for years to come.
“That’s the whole art of cooking. You try something new, and though it might be the same recipe, it tastes slightly different and you try to recreate that,” Mr. Gianakos said. “You always learn.”
Yiannis Greek Restaurant is located at 238 Yale Ave.