There are now fewer than a dozen sit-down Greek restaurants in the Charleston area, but Greek restaurateurs have historically played a significant role in the food-and-beverage scene.
The first wave of Greek immigrants to the United States arrived in the late 1800s. The vast majority of the newcomers were men, many of whom weren't highly capable cooks. So the more culinary adept among them opened restaurants for their countrymen, calling on the Greek tradition of hospitality. Greek immigrants also operated hot dog carts, tamale wagons and candy shops. According to Peter and Charles Moskos, authors of “Greek Americans: Struggle and Success,” there were 7,000 Greek-owned restaurants in the U.S. just before the Depression, generally serving a mix of identifiably “American” dishes and a few Greek classics.
While the earliest Greek restaurants were located in Northern cities, immigrant restaurateurs were drawn to the Southeast by the region's relative scarcity of public eating places. “A few even managed to develop chains,” the Moskoses write. “The big restaurant name in Virginia and the Carolinas was Lambropoulos.”
Many of the Greek-owned restaurants in Charleston were modest lunch counters, although chauvinistic city residents were apt to conflate foreign ownership with illicit activities. “There is a certain element among them that is constantly in hot water,” The News and Courier noted in 1908 when reporting the shutdown of Nicholas Hamasocopos' restaurant, described as “an indecent and disorderly house, probably the lowest dive in the city.”
But citizens generally appreciated the availability of simple, filling food that melded Greek and Southern cooking styles, such as the dishes sold at 43 Columbus St. by Yselious Lempesis (who rebounded in 1913 after a would-be robber smashed a vinegar bottle over his head.) In the early 1920s, Star Restaurant on King Street ran a regular listing on The Evening Post's help wanted pages, reading “Wanted — you to know that you can save time, money and health by eating at the Star Restaurant.”
Indeed, Greek restaurants were perceived as so affordable that a 26-year-old Savannah man who in 1915 kidnapped his girlfriend and held her hostage in a Charleston hotel room initially fed her “syrup and pone.” Then, she testified, “He carried me to a Greek restaurant. After that, I had plenty to eat.”
Second-generation Greek-Americans in Charleston and elsewhere didn't always stick with the restaurant business. But the tradition of restaurant ownership was picked up by the 260,000 Greeks who entered the country after the 1965 repeal of the National Origins Act; in the early 1980s, Charlestonians had their pick of Greek restaurants, including The Carriage House, The Pantheon, Expresso, Olympia and, in Summerville, Continental Corner, opened in 1973 by Tom Mavrikes and Ernest Yatrelis. Reviewing The Princess Gourmet Food Restaurant in 1983, The News and Courier's Frank Jarrell called it “another in the slowly, but consistently, growing collection of Greek restaurants in metropolitan Charleston.”
For Fred Weickhardt, the standout among the Greek-inflected restaurants was Freida's, located at 86 Society St. “Whether it was the roast beef, rice and gravy and boiled cabbage; or the chicken and dumplings with a side of green beans; or the Friday fried fish, red rice and collard greens, the food was made with love and served on those old-style thick white restaurant dishes,” writes Weickhardt, a Post and Courier reader. “The word 'dessert' is what really can make your mouth water even after all these years: Baklava and apple pie.”