Tommy Karakostas landed in the restaurant business the way a lot of people do: a love of food and a career that started to get a bit stale.
After 12 years of private practice, the chiropractor traded in his doctor's bag for a knife roll, opening the tiny Greek Village Grill in Lakewood in 2009. Its success led to locations for his casual Greek restaurant in Broadview Heights and Medina, but he felt something was missing from Northeast Ohio's culinary scene.
"We're so ethnically diverse in Cleveland," he says. "And we don't have a Greek restaurant downtown."
So in March Karakostas opened Santorini Greek Taverna in the former Warehouse District location of BRGR9 and pulled in his brother, Gus, as a partner. The two had long lamented the lack of a village that could bring together the large Greek population living in Northeast Ohio.
Plus, "that's probably the only other person I'd be able to work with," Karakostas laughs.
The first-generation Americans come from what Karakostas describes as a stereotypical Greek family. Their mother is from Thessaloniki, which sits on the Mediterranean coast and is the country's second-largest city. Their father grew up in Larissa, an inland city with a history that goes back at least 8 millennia.
"We were brought up completely, 100 percent Greek. That was our first language," he says. "When we went to kindergarten, we were lost completely. I ran home crying and didn't want to go back because I didn't know what they were saying. I was one of those foreign kids, even though I was born here."
Forty years later, his strong cultural ties are evident in Santorini's offerings. The mousaka ($17), a Mediterranean shepherd's pie made with eggplant, ground beef, cinnamon and bechamel sauce, is crafted from the same recipe his mother used, as is the pastitsio ($17), a similar dish made with pasta.
"Those are my two favorites," he explains, "even though everybody makes it."
But while the extensive menu at Santorini is loaded with tradition, Karakostas' modern touch defies the typical ethnic experience of delicious-but-humble.
"I wanted to present to Cleveland a lot of classic, traditional dishes but with a modern twist to them," he says.
A Greek salad ($7 side, $13 entree) shows intention with heirloom-variety cucumbers and tomatoes, shaved green peppers and sliced caper berries. A typical starter of hummus, eggplant and feta cheese spreads ($18) has flair with an artisan presentation in diminutive Mason jars and a skewer of grilled pita.
Even the mousaka, which anywhere else comes as a messy slice from a giant casserole pan, is baked in individual clay crocks for a more elegant presentation.
"I picked up Greek cooking from my mother," says Karakostas. "Everything else I've taken over the years of reading Greek cookbooks, visits to Greece, other relatives and friends of mine in Greece."
That's not to say there aren't indicators he's somewhat new to the almost fine-dining scene.
At first, Santorini feels a little foreign. Decor that seems contrived — towering white columns, folk music looping over the speakers, a faux window scene of the white-washed houses and blue domed roofs of the island of Santorini — takes on real charm, particularly while sipping on citrus and ouzo cocktails. The food is generally very good, but the menu has more than 50 items, not including the cocktail and dessert list.
Karakostas admits he's had a hard time paring down the list because there is no other venue that can fill in the gaps, as in other major cities' Greek villages.
"I feel if I isolated my menu a little bit that I'm not doing justice to what I can offer in Cleveland," he says.
To tackle the beast, bring the whole family or stick with a few mezedes, tapas-sized dishes made for sharing. These make up the lion's share of Santorini's offerings and range from zucchini and eggplant chips ($8) to seared scallops ($18).
But if you're feeling especially hungry (or want leftovers for lunch the following day), choose an entree from whichever category — vegetarian, seafood, poultry or from-the-grill — that strikes you.
We recommend the kotsi arni ($26), fork-tender lamb shank in tomato sauce. A holiday mainstay, the braised shanks, which are heavy in both spice and in portion, are piled over orzo pasta with spoonfuls of sauce. Here it forgoes family-style heft and is much more visually appealing when presented in individual cast-iron skillets.
Karakostas' flair is more or less a rebranding of a food that's both well-known and well-loved. (Although given its wide appeal, it would be nice to see more patrons in the seats on the weekends.)
"Taverna means just an eatery. It means something small, quaint, authentic," says Karakostas, who has made about 30 visits to Greece throughout his life and says he's often mistaken as a native.
"It's a style: It's fresh herbs, fresh spices, fresh vegetables, the olive oil, the lemon juice," he says. "It's the simplicity of how you're cooking things that's Greek cuisine."
When You Go: Santorini Greek Taverna, 1382 W. Ninth St., Cleveland, 216-205-4675, tackk.com/santorini-greek-taverna, Sun-Thu 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri and Sat 11 a.m.-midnight