A new creative menu, remodeled décor, same old Greek hospitality
By Mary Kate Hogan
You can’t judge a book, or a restaurant, by its cover. The façade of Famous Greek has remained much the same since the place opened more than thirty years ago as a local pizza and souvlaki joint. But inside, big changes have been underway. Last spring the Byram eatery was reinvented by the second generation of the Karapides family and renamed Famous Greek Kitchen. One of the daughters, Sophie, designed the new interior, creating a more contemporary look with white leather banquettes and plum and brown grasscloth walls. The menu has been expanded and upgraded by their son, Steve, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America. Another daughter, Maria, is running the show as the manager and carrying out the family’s tradition of hospitality.
Still, the next generation wisely recognized that while they could elevate the menu and décor, they should preserve what customers have liked all along: popular dishes such as pizza, souvlaki and an amazing Greek salad, the welcoming atmosphere (including the retro sign out front); and the fact that Liz Karapides, who emigrated from Northern Greece decades ago, can still be found in the kitchen rolling the stuffed grape leaves.
After enjoying a lunch and a dinner here, I would recommend some of the old-school dishes as well as Steve’s more recent creations. For dinner, we arrived on a Friday night around 8 p.m. and the restaurant was nearly full, except for one communal table. We sat in a booth, which meant close quarters for our party of six. Our friendly waiter was quick to make suggestions and got us grazing on some traditional spreads—made in-house every morning—as well as a few signature appetizers.
We started with the tyrokafteri, a creamy blend of feta and hot pepper that’s tangy, lightly spicy and raises the bar for dips everywhere; a few days later, we were trying to figure out how to recreate the dish, it was that memorable. An avocado hummus spread was tasty too but eclipsed by our interest in the tyrokafteri. The oktapodi is beautifully charred so it’s crispy on the outside and tender inside and served in a vinegary sauce. Seafood is one of the restaurant’s strong suits: The special blue crab appetizer was tender and subtly flavored, topped with an olive relish, while the shrimp saganaki refreshes with its feta and dill topping and bright tomato sauce. The chef distinguishes himself with dishes that meld an innovative mix of ingredients, such as the Five Shades of Green salad, a chopped mélange of cucumber, avocados, apples, pistachios, golden raisins and gorgonzola. Also, don’t miss the traditional Greek salad: no lettuce, just big chunks of cucumber and tomato, olives, pepperoncini, onion and an outstanding, creamy feta that’s leagues above any supermarket variety (it’s sourced from a Greek market in Queens).
Between courses we endured a fairly lengthy wait. In the meantime, we asked for extra pita for dipping and nibbling. Later, the bill showed a $1 charge for each extra helping of bread. A modest fee, of course, but it seemed like something that should be on the house.
Once we were digging into our mains, a few entrées emerged as favorites: a substantial lamb burger cooked medium as ordered, slathered in tzatziki and served with cucumbers, olives and feta; the huge souvlaki platter with a nicely spicy falafel, grape leaves, salad and skewered grilled chicken; and a salmon en croute prepared with spinach inside the flaky pastry and a side of fragrant, garlicky chimichurri sauce. We liked the simple preparation of the black bass fish special, moist and lemony, but the side of bitter steamed dandelion greens, not as much. I was looking forward to trying the mousaka, which wasn’t available the first time we ate here, but at this meal, the lamb-and-eggplant dish was a bit dry.
Portions are generous, so you’re wise to wrap up those extras and indulge in some time-honored desserts. We capped our meal with a trio of baklavas that lived up to our fantasies of the honey-laden pastry and a good standard rice pudding. Bottom line: If you’re gaga for homemade Greek food—both classics and modern interpretations—this affordable, under-the-radar eatery is a fun place to feed your craving.