By Michelle Love
Photos by Mary Fehr
Greg Pappas is Pappas’ Grill. Since the restaurant opened in 1992, he has been the sole owner, chef and recipe tester in the restaurant’s storefront off Highway 31. While he says his wife, Pat, and his son help prep in the mornings, from the moment the door opens to when they close, guests will find Greg behind the counter running the show and serving fresh, made-to-order Mediterranean dishes.
“It’s consistent,” Greg says. “I’m the one that’s cooking everything. You don’t have one shift doing this or another one doing that, it’s me. If I’m not here, we’re closed.”
Greg’s kitchen days started at Sneaky Pete where hot dog enthusiasts may know him from his time running the Eastwood Mall location from 1974 to 1986. After leaving Sneaky Pete’s and managing another local restaurant, Greg decided he wanted to open his own place. A friend was selling a spot in a small shopping center in the middle of Vestavia Hills, and Greg jumped on the opportunity. Pappas’ Grill was born in October 1992, and they’ve been operating in the same location ever since.
All of his menu items came from family recipes or are originals inspired by classic Greek dishes. The love Greg has not just for Greek cuisine but also the country itself is obvious when you walk inside. The restaurant is adorned in blown-up photographs of Greg and his family on their trips to Greece, so you can feel like you are eating roasted leg of lamb on a Greek shore or tasting a Greek salad on a busy market street. Even as we conducted this interview, he was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the Greek flag. “It’s in my blood,” he says.
Greg says he has always wanted to do serve Greek food too. “I originally thought I was going to make a hot dog stand out of this place, but I wasn’t doing hardly any business,” he says. “Once a week at Sneaky Pete’s they ran a special of pastitsio, which is a Greek lasagna, and that was a really good lunch shift for them. So, I said to myself, ‘That’s the only time they’re really doing any business is when they do the Greek lasagna,’ so I took out everything here that I had hotdog wise and I started doing pork kabob, chicken, pastitsio. Then every so often I would add something else to the menu.”
After 30 years in business, the menu now features an assortment of Greek classics from everyone’s favorite gyro to prime rib, a Thursday night special. Classics like pastitsio and moussaka are always a big hit too.
In the kitchen you’ll find a fryer, flattop grill, char grill, an oven and a convection oven, which is where Greg makes his famous Greek-style snapper and his Friday nights roasted leg of lamb special. The space to a degree limits what new menu items are added though. “The way this place is set up, I’m the only one cooking so there’s just so much that I can do, so I have to think long and hard about whether or not I can get this particular thing out,” Greg says. “Once I think about that, that’s when I add it to the menu. You know, can I get it out fast and still top quality?”
What about hiring kitchen help? Greg is adamant about the answer to that question: “People ask me why I don’t get somebody in here and train them and stuff like that so I can go on vacation or whatever, and I always say I’ve worked too hard to build this. I don’t want somebody to destroy it in two weeks, which can happen.”
And so each day Greg arrives at the restaurant at 8:30 in the morning, if there are no catering orders, and stays till 8:30 at night five days a week. They just started closing on Saturdays two years ago and are closed on Sundays. “Sixty-five hours, five days a week is enough,” he says with a laugh.
You can also get a taste of Pappas’ at the Greek Food Festival in downtown Birmingham each year as they donate approximately 70 gallons of tzaziki sauce.
Though they were impacted by the pandemic, Greg says they never stopped feeling the support of their community. “Our customers are so loyal,” he says. “They did everything they possibly could to help us get through all of this, and we are so appreciative of it. They bought gift certificates and (placed) a lot of to-go orders, and it really helped us get through this.”
Greg says the majority of their COVID sales loss came from a lack of catering orders. “As far as inside the restaurant, it was hectic because it was all to-go orders, and it was twice the work trying to get all the food out,” he recounts. As of our interview in April, though, business was starting to pick back up, and Greg was looking forward to seeing so many of his regulars return for dine-in service.
Come pandemic or any other storm life might send his way, Greg says you will always find behind the counter of Pappas’. “People ask me when I’m going to retire, and I always tell them Elmwood is my next stop,” he says with a chuckle. “I’ll be back there cooking with my walker someday, and my only worry will be getting grease on my tennis balls.”
Greg Pappas’ Fresh Picks
Favorite menu item: The lamb and the snapper are the two dishes that I’m really proud of. With the snapper, to give it a real Mediterranean flare, I love to top it with fresh onion, tomato and feta cheese with olive oil, and then I bake it off.
Menu items made ahead of time: Pastitsio, the moussaka, grape leaves and spinach pie.
What makes it fresh: Greek food is healthy. There’s no preservatives in it, and everything we cook is fresh. We don’t freeze anything and if you order a whole pan of pastitsio, you have to give us a day’s notice because we make it from scratch fresh to order.