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George Giannaris at his restaurant, Hellenic Snack Bar. (Photo credit: Doug Young)

Much like the annual shadow of the groundhog, Hellenic in East Marion acts as the North Fork’s seasonal harbinger. The moment the “open” sign lights up in the window in February, East Enders know warmer weather is just around the corner.

In nearly 50 years, the restaurant has transformed from a tiny roadside snack bar to one of only a handful of legacy restaurants left on the North Fork. Its owner, George Giannaris, and his family have quietly carved a path full of fresh ingredients and amiable service, all the while acting as champions of the surrounding vineyards and farms. 

There are some changes afoot at the iconic restaurant this season, some simple, like the addition of a fresh gelato counter; others earthshaking—like the changes after the death of founder and patriarch John Giannaris in May 2023 at 86 years old. George, for his part, is steadfast in carrying his father’s legacy of love and hard work alive well into the business’s future.

“Something that always stuck with me was a quote from the movie Chariots of Fire,” George says. It’s the moving moment in the Oscar-winning film when the fleet-of-foot main character, Eric Liddell, says he believes that a higher power’s purpose for him was to run and run fast. And when he does, he says “I feel [God’s] pleasure.” George likes to quote this bit because it’s something he relates to, even way back when the movie came out in 1981 and he was just a teenager. 

“That’s where my passion comes from. God made me the way that I am so I can cook. It’s in my genes and my family’s history,” he says. “It fulfills me like nothing else. This place is my life because of that passion.” 

When life gave them lemons, they made lemonade

Hellenic’s lemonade. (Photo credit: Doug Young)

Unlike the story of many immigrant families, Hellenic’s success wasn’t the original dream for John Giannaris. 

“My dad was a banquet waiter at the Plaza Hotel,” explains George. “He saved all his money so we could move back to Greece.” 

The Giannaris family—John, his wife, Anna, and their son, George—lived in Astoria, Queens, when John purchased Brown’s Cabins in East Marion, a spot with 18 individual sleeping quarters and, more intriguing to the Greek immigrant, a little roadside snack bar that looked like it had potential. With the help of his cousin-in-law Gus Hartofelis, he rechristened it the Hellenic Snack Bar and Cabins and opened for business with one goal in mind: raise enough money to move back to Greece full-time.

As the United States celebrated its bicentennial birthday on July 4, 1976, grand opening banners waved alongside Greek flags across the front of the small, six-stool snack shack in East Marion on County Road 48. 

Ten-year-old George stood ready to take orders from hungry customers. Yet even at his tender age, he could feel the air of anxiousness that hung over his family. 

“What was an immigrant from Greece doing behind the counter of his own business?” asks George in his self-published autobiography, “Ferry Tales.” “Everyone thought the snack bar was doomed.” 

Indeed, at first the snack bar generated little revenue; family lore even says that Hartofelis almost bulldozed the place before John stopped him. The early success of Hellenic was found in the 60-year-old wood cabins behind it, reserved by summertime residents seeking the family-friendly sea and sand charms of the North Fork.

These cabin renters, mostly of Greek origin, brought freezers full of meat from the city, quelling any need for the hot dogs and burgers John tried to tempt them with at the accompanying Hellenic Snack Bar. However, he found the secret elixir to entice visitors to check out the eatery was his homemade lemonade. Word spread of the refreshing, delicious quaff, and soon people were staying for a bite to eat. 

But it wasn’t just the sweetened sips—it was also John’s good, welcoming nature that drew people in. “Helen of Troy had a face that could launch a thousand ships; John had a smile that made thousands of customers instant friends,” were the words used to describe the elder Giannaris’s secret to success in his Suffolk Times obituary. And indeed, while customers stayed for the lemonade and tender lamb, they came for John’s warmth. 

“[My family] has been coming out to the North Fork since the ’50s. When [Hellenic] opened we were there on the first day,” says Tony Spiridakis, a lifelong North Fork vacationer-turned-resident and current owner of the North Fork Arts Center on Front Street. “Hellenic is always home.” 

A journey across the pond (and back again)

Throughout Hellenic’s early years, John sent all the money they made back to his older brother, Leonidas, in Greece, who had enticed his younger sibling to move back with promises of building a Grecian Shangri-La with the money. But John was trying to go back to the Greece he remembered; not the one that in the winter of 1981 was on the verge of financial collapse. 

The plan was simple for the Giannaris family: they would return to the motherland and spend three-quarters of the year in the small village of Artaki, situated between a sparkling blue bay and gray snow-capped Dirfys Mountains. In the summer, the family would return to the States to manage the snack bar and cabins in East Marion, which in five short years proved capable of generating enough income to support the family throughout the warmer months. 

However, John’s cherished Greek fantasy ultimately proved to be a nightmare. The funds sent abroad in the years leading up to the move fell short, offering insufficient support for the family during the rest of the year.

“We were only there for two winters,” explains George. “My dad would come [to East Marion] early to open the restaurant. The second year he said, ‘Bring with you everything that you want to keep.’ ” 

At the age of 13, George, armed with the essentials of an ’80s teenager—MAD Magazines and rock vinyl records—packed up for his return from Greece to America, unaware those items would be the sole mementos of his Greek experience as he was to enroll at Greenport High School that fall. 

Creating a legacy

(Photo credit: Doug Young)

In 1985, the cabins, which by then were eclipsed in popularity by the Hellenic Snack Bar, were demolished. The East Marion mainstay underwent renovations to transform from a small shack to a full-scale restaurant with a broad outdoor patio, equipped to host over a hundred people. The menu also expanded, becoming one of the first places on the North Fork to serve Greek staples like chicken souvlaki and lamb gyros. The food and the warm vibe became popular with locals and summer people alike.

“They treat us like we’re family,” says Mark Solomon, whose family has dined at Hellenic since the 1980s. “Their dedication to quality and comfort has never not amazed me. I go through withdrawal if I don’t have their Greek salad. One year, they even gave me a bottle of the dressing to hold me over during the winter.” 

As a teenager and young adult who spent every summer working at Hellenic, George had little interest in taking on the responsibility of his parent’s restaurant. In the spring of 1992, he graduated from Stony Brook University with a degree in electrical engineering and found himself at a crossroads. 

“It was either go into my field and get a master’s and maybe get a career in that field or come work for my dad,” says George. Coming to the realization he would be inheriting a seasonal business that gave him two months off, and much-needed time with his family, he took a leap of faith and chose the latter. 

“Being Greek, the culture is embedded in you, it’s something that runs in your veins. Being Greek means your family is everything, and that ideal is so prevalent within the lifestyle of North Forkers.”

George and his wife, Maria, took over full operations of Hellenic Snack Bar in 1998, while his dad continued to work full-steam, eschewing the notion of semi-retirement until 2016, when he begrudgingly cut his hours back to 40 per week (or part-time, as George says his dad used to call it).

Heart of the Hellenic

(Photo credit: Doug Young)

Over the past 25 years, George, like his father, poured himself into Hellenic. His dedication to excellence led him to incorporate the freshest ingredients he could find, frequently sourced directly from nearby North Fork farms. Additionally, Hellenic offers one of the most extensive lists of Long Island wines of any restaurant on the North Fork, setting it apart from its neighbors.

With a culinary career spanning almost four decades, George continues to explore and experiment with his skills in the kitchen. In addition to the 90 hours a week dedicated to his restaurant, he produces and edits videos for his YouTube channel, AwareHouseChef, where he imparts his expertise, teaching viewers everything from how to prepare healthy meals with professional flair to how to safely preserve food. The channel, which launched in 2019, has amassed over 50,000 subscribers. 

Even with the newly truncated version of the name, there’s an almost gravitational yank that makes you pull off the road and into Hellenic’s ample parking lot. It’s the food, sure (and, of course, what is still the best lemonade around), but it’s also the feel like you’ve just walked right into the middle of a fun, lively family gathering. The menu remains largely the same, and the special of the day is always inclusivity. 

“They’re so accommodating,” says another longtime customer Mike DiLeo, who began dining at Hellenic in the early aughts. “My wife has celiac [disease], they have gluten-free pita. My daughter is vegetarian, she loves their falafel. My son-in-law is vegan, there’s always something for him to eat too. It’s fabulous.” 

In 2017, George got the idea to add gelato to the menu. Luckily, a renowned gelato school was just an hour’s drive away, in Ronkonkoma. Like his father’s magic lemonade which was made from three ingredients, George perfected his gelato recipe of three simple ingredients, eggs, milk and sugar. 

“Gelato tastes its best when it comes right out of the machine — there’s really no comparison to the creamy deliciousness,” he says. This year, one of the new additions is the brand new gelato counter George unveiled at the restaurant, expanding the menu from one or two flavors to six. 

Of course, like with everything in Hellenic, it goes above and beyond. Each gelato container is its own machine, working concurrently to mix fresh gelato in real time. For this summer, George is introducing flavors such as Belgian chocolate, bourbon, vanilla, mocha-frappe and Hellenic’s signature baklava. 

As the Giannarises embark on their second season without their patriarch, George is hopeful for the future of his restaurant. 

“The people coming out here still have that family-minded orientation,” he says. “I think they are just looking for a good place to hunker down and have a nice meal. So that’ll keep us around for a while. That’s the kind of place we are.”