by Eric Ginsburg
The standalone Greek restaurant at the bottom of Burke Street’s hill is of the self-seating sort, with tables on either side of the register and a tucked-away back room. But when Elise walks through the front door of the Grecian Corner and joins me at the only open two-top, the server prods us to move to the larger table next to us. We’ll be more comfortable there, she suggests.
We’re fine, we assure her, and after trying to insist, she offers as she gives up that there’s a woman who usually sits here who hasn’t been in yet.
Most of the people eating lunch here on this Saturday are regulars, in fact, as evidenced by a first-name greeting when they arrive or playful banter with the cashier. It’s an old-school sort of place; not only has it served Winston-Salem since 1970, but a decent number of the patrons are retirement age. What’s more, the Greek-American fusion restaurant is cash only, though there is an ATM in the corner, our server points out.
The Grecian Corner has two claims to fame, my friend Melissa tells me when first pitching the restaurant: the chicken souvlaki, and some screen time in the 1990 comedy Mr. Destiny featuring Courteney Cox, Rene Russo and James Belushi among others. I was three at the time, and “Friends” never left a positive impression on me, so the souvlaki would have to sell the restaurant on its own.
And the Grecian Corner seems to reinforce her points: There’s an homage to the film on a side wall and, more importantly, the chicken souvlaki is marked as a signature dish. Be it in a pita wrap — topped with a generous amount of chopped onion, pepper and tomato and plated with a fork stuck in it — as a platter with tzatziki sauce or offered up on a sub roll, the souvlaki is where it’s at.
Souvlaki is traditionally small pieces of grilled meat — often pork — on a skewer, which is no doubt why the restaurant serves an “authentic pork souvlaki” as well as a side order souvlaki stick. Only the chicken souvlaki on two skewers is marked as “our signature dish,” but I go for the pita, a smart move because of the bread’s mildly crisp texture and because it’s far more authentic than a sub roll.
It’s a little strange that the wrap is served in a wax-paper bag though, as opposed to the tin-foil approach other Mediterranean restaurants often take — the bag catches and holds any food that falls out of the pita, to be sure, but it also acts like a retention pond for leaking juices.
A considerable portion of the Grecian Corner’s menu consists of standard American sandwiches and even a few Italian pastas. That’s how dolmades — stuffed grape leaves — and mozzarella sticks end up near each other on the menu, and how a gyro pizza is birthed.
The promise of a pickle spear is enough to entice my friend Elise to order a turkey and Swiss sandwich with lettuce, tomato and onion. The turkey is smoked, making this one of the better deli-style sandwiches around, though I can’t for the life of me figure out why Elise wouldn’t move one item further down the menu to the same sandwich with bacon, and order it hot.
Grecian Corner uses Boar’s Head cold cuts — a very consistent, high-quality commercial brand — and besides the standards, the sandwich list also includes choices like a sauerkraut dog, a veal cutlet and a cheeseburger pita (which is exactly what it sounds like). The wine list, which includes red and white Kouros options from Greece, draws my eye, as does the loukoumades — warm honey balls with walnuts and cinnamon — but the souvlaki and a few of Elise’s fries are more than enough to sate me.
Around us, people are talking about a Greek festival in town, and a server is cooing over a large bouquet of flowers that were just delivered to her. She brings them over to the table next to us, where a set of glasses rests on top of a folded newspaper and a cup waits for her. Our server strikes up a conversation with us about her evening plans — she’s headed to Bowman Gray Stadium, as she will be whenever possible this racing season.
And we’re on our way too, bidding our goodbyes and thanks before the unnamed regular turns up to claim her rightful seat she unknowingly and temporarily ceded to us, at this neighborhood establishment among her friends.
Visit the Grecian Corner at 101 Eden Terrace (W-S) or at greciancorner.com.