To explain how authentically Greek Olympia Kebob House & Taverna is, co-owner George Nicholas points to the restaurant's seating: rows of old, sawed-in-half wooden church pews. It's not only the fact that they came from some of St. Louis' oldest Greek Orthodox Churches — it's how they were acquired.
"Back in the day, my father would ride around with this old Greek Orthodox priest who was so big he had to take the driver's seat out of the car and fix something up so the priest would fit," Nicholas says. "They'd go to all these different churches that were closing their doors, and the priest would trade relics, like all these saints' bones and stuff. He traded some of them for these pews; they were covered in six coats of pistachio-green-colored paint when my father got them, and he had to strip them and cut them in half."
If Olympia's booths could talk, they would tell the story of how a humble building of three storefronts rose to become one of the city's most beloved bastions of Greek cuisine. However, the prologue of Olympia goes back much further, all the way to the small village of Kardis in Rhodes, where Nicholas' grandfather lived until the Italian and German invasion of Greece in the early 1940s. Fleeing with only a few drachma in his pocket, he landed in St. Louis and built a life for his family, making his living as the owner of an international market on DeBaliviere Avenue as well as a building on McCausland Avenue that had a few businesses running out of it and an apartment in the back.
Nicholas' father, George Sr., worked alongside his grandfather at the market, but when it came time for the patriarch to retire, his son wanted to do something different. Inspired by the Greek tavernas he'd frequently visited in Rhodes, George Sr. decided to open a restaurant in one of the vacant storefronts in his dad's McCausland building. He called upon his aunt Marietta, who had a reputation as the cook of the family, and together they came up with a menu of the traditional Greek dishes she learned to cook in Rhodes and regularly prepared in her home kitchen.
In 1980, they set up shop in the north half of the building as a cafeteria-style operation and welcomed their first guests. There were no menus, no bar and no advertising — only a simple steam table filled with Marietta's specialties and a small dining room that was quickly packed with well-wishers from their church who came to support their new endeavor.
Eventually, George Sr. wanted to expand into the building's adjacent space, a well-frequented laundromat. However, one day, after an uncouth patron answered nature's call in one of the dryers, George Sr.'s father decided he'd had enough and agreed to let his son convert it into a bar for Olympia.
"You might not want to print that," Nicholas laughs. "Let's just say that my grandfather got really frustrated after the guy did that and put up a sign on the front door of the laundromat cursing in Greek that he'd had enough and was closing."
George Sr. took over, acquiring fixtures — such as lights from the Arcade Building downtown and a pre-Prohibition men's clothing store — from old St. Louis buildings and living in the apartment that was eventually also converted. He ran "the Olympia," as it's fondly called by the family and regulars, until his passing in 2018.
During his run, the restaurant endeared itself to St. Louis diners for its family atmosphere, traditional Greek specialties and saganacki, or flaming cheese, that Nicholas says started out as a gimmick and quickly became the thing people came in to experience. Even when Marietta retired, the food quality didn't skip a beat thanks to her mentoring of longtime employee Nexhat Dullovi, who carried on her traditions. When it came time for him to retire, he passed on what he knew to his cousin and the restaurant's current chef, Bashir. Nicholas credits their fierce commitment to keeping Marietta's culinary legacy alive with the restaurant's continued success.
However, Nicholas knows that the Olympia has endeared itself to St. Louis diners for much more than its food. He believes a lot of its consistent popularity is because it has become such a staple of people's lives and that there is nostalgia at work. He's seen multiple generations come through, and he believes that momentum feeds on itself.
"People will say that their grandma brought them here, and now they are bringing their kids," Nicholas says. "We've changed very little. The recipes are always the same. The décor is consistent. I think that familiarity is what brings people back. When they walk through those doors, it's unchanged from the day they proposed to their wife here. We have so many stories like that. I've even had a man scatter his late wife's ashes in the bushes out front."
Nicholas, who owns Olympia with his brother, Chris, and his sisters (who are silent partners), Katherine and Sophia, feels the responsibility that comes with the restaurant occupying such a special place in its diners' hearts. He says that, even as a young kid bussing tables, he always knew that the place was his destiny, and he continues to embrace that, balancing the past and the future. While he and his brother keep the restaurant up to date and relevant, he understands that the worst thing they could do would be to alter the essential character of a place that has such a distinct identity. Both employees and regulars alike have expectations about the restaurant, and he says it's a privilege to be able to deliver for them.
"I have my days when I wonder what I am doing and whether I am living out my grandfather's dream, but I am very grateful they have afforded me this opportunity," Nicholas says. "My grandfather is one of those stories of someone who came to American with 15 cents of drachma in his pocket and ended up building generational wealth. It was very tough, and I have to live up that and the expectations everyone has of what the Olympia is supposed to be. A lot of that is trying not to change too much; people don't like change. Sometimes there are better ways to do something, but if the old and familiar and comfortable also works, you do that because you don't want to mess with the recipe for success."