Wednesday, July 24, 2024

A wrap at Greek Corner atop a menu at the North Cambridge legacy business. (Photo: Greek Corner)

Georgios Boretos and his older brother Themis have been cooking together for more than 35 years, delivering some of the area’s best Greek food at their two restaurants, Cambridge’s Greek Corner Restaurant and The Arlington Restaurant & Diner. Plenty of time for sibling-style fights, right? “Not big fights, just disagreements,” Georgios says, adding with a wink, “you know, things happen.”

The brothers were among 18 proprietors honored recently by the City of Cambridge as part of a Legacy Business Award program, recognizing stores that have been in operation for more than 25 consecutive years.

Greek Corner opened in 1989 in a smaller space, but the same North Cambridge location it inhabits today at 2366 Massachusetts Ave. Themis arrived first, drawn to Cambridge because it was close to his home in Watertown. “I liked it because it was so diverse,” he explains. The location was filled with old-time Cantabrigians as well as younger couples with limited budgets. Neighborhood bars filled the storefronts; a cobbler and record store were nearby. Importantly, there were no good Greek restaurants to be seen.

Business was slow at first. “I don’t know if you remember, but ’89, ’90, ’91, it was very hard years for everybody around here, you know? People lost their jobs. They used to come here and say we’re going to miss you. We’re leaving to another state.”

Fortunes changed with a write-up in the Boston Globe‘s Cheap Eats column that year. “I was in Montreal at my own restaurant,” Georgios recalls, “when my brother called saying the paper was going to write about him and he needed extra help.”

“I remember it was Thursday, and I saw like two big lines of a hundred people outside,” more than triple the capacity of the 30-seat space. Word spread and the number of diners who came – and returned – grew. What was intended as a temporary visit turned quickly into a full-time job for the dutiful younger brother.

Despite its name, the restaurant at the time served standard American fare – pancakes, burgers, fries and the like – as well as Greek specialties the brothers learned to make from their mother. “The old-timers like the American food,” Themis recalls. “They don’t know Greek food.”

“We open breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Georgios adds. “Breakfast was the best. But I don’t like breakfast … too early. I wanna wake up at around 8, 9, and when you have a breakfast, you have to wake up at 5,” he chuckles. Three meals a day also meant 12-plus hour workdays for the brothers – more than they could handle. Much to Georgios’ relief, they scaled back to lunch and dinner only and focused exclusively on the foods they knew the best from their roots in Sparta, Greece.

Over the years, Greek Corner grew, opening a sliver of a shop in Harvard Square for 13 years before selling it and more than doubling its North Cambridge footprint. Along the way, the restaurant garnered honors such as Best of Boston in 2018 and became the object of glowing reviews from local papers including the Phoenix and Cambridge Chronicle. Former U.S. House Speaker and North Cambridge resident Tip O’Neill was a fan, stopping by for his favorite lemon soup in the evenings after schmoozing with constituents at nearby bars.

Guy Fieri, well-known host of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” singled out the restaurant twice, first in 2010 and again five years later. “We had to close the store for two days,” Georgios remembers. “The first day we were cooking with his crew. He came the next day. It was a lot of fun – and a lot of stress. But in the end, it was very nice when we saw the show. And my mother even saw it in Greece.” The men’s mother visited several times before her death last year, each time casting a careful eye over what came out of the kitchen. “Sometimes, you know, she was saying this is no good. You have to make it better,” Georgios chuckles. They knew that more than anything, she was proud.

Family remains at the heart of the restaurants. Both men’s children have worked at one or both, and the Boretos’ extended Greek family – who live in the area or visit, having heard about the authenticity of the fare – keep them going too, professionally and personally. “Because we’ve been here so long, a lot of people, they know us. So, when they meet some people from [my hometown of] Sparta, they tell them that the Boretos brothers own the Greek restaurant and they come here and say, ‘Hey, we found you!’”

There are legions of other faithful customers, like the lady who has arrived early five or six days a week for the past 20 years. “She eats the same thing – chicken,” Georgios says, glancing at his watch. “What time is it? In 20, 25 minutes she’ll be here. I tell her all the time. I say, we open at 11 and she says, ‘That’s okay.’” With that, he is off to get ready for another busy day.