By Greta Easthom
When your father owns a Greek diner, it’s pretty clear where your roots will grow.
Before he could see over the counter, George Pagonis, “Top Chef” contestant and executive owner of Kapnos restaurants, was rolling dolmades and stirring tzatziki.
This upbringing led him and his brother Nicholas to a partnership with “Top Chef” winner Mike Isabella that resulted in a series of successful restaurants in the competitive Washington, D.C., area. The newest Sept. 25 addition, Kapnos Taverna, tucks under The Hotel in College Park, Maryland.
“I’ve basically been cooking my entire life,” said Pagonis, who graduated from the University of Mary Washington with a business degree. After working for a series of restaurants including Zaytinya and Graffiato, Pagonis’ father gave him and his brother start-up money to seed their restaurant partnership with Isabella, Pagonis said.
“We didn’t want the same-old, same-old Greek food, but to put twists on traditional classic dishes,” said Pagonis.
And thus arose the conceptualization for the first Kapnos. It would open in Washington, D.C. in 2013.
Soon after, “Top Chef”, showcased Pagonis as a Kapnos co-owner. The publicity created “opportunities to sign other leases, we made new [restaurants]; we make sure each one is different than the other,” said Pagonis.
These other leases include Kapnos Kouzina in Bethesda, Maryland, and another Kapnos Taverna in Arlington, Virginia.
But don’t call Kapnos a chain. It’s a brand, not a chain, Pagonis emphasized.
“Every restaurant we adjust to the neighborhood based off clientele,” said Pagonis. For the College Park, Maryland, location this meant “the most affordable menu out of all the restaurants, more approachable food, happy hour 3-7 p.m. every day and bar snacks that will engage a college crowd.” Pagonis gave the example of a lunch that included a gyro, a side, and a drink for $15.
“Of course we’re not going to do 50 cent drafts or anything like that,” Pagonis chuckled, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I did that all throughout college too.”
Pagonis acknowledged Kapnos Taverna may cater more to conference center visitors, parents and professors. He said Parents Weekend was “a crazy weekend,” and the best source of revenue so far.
Academia members Chuck Clark, fellow of the Joint Quantum Institute at University of Maryland, and Jaideep Singh, physics professor visiting from Michigan State University, dined on roasted cauliflower and melitzanosalata at the Taverna. Clark decided to take Singh because “the food is very good and people like the Mediterranean style,” Clark said.
“This is maybe the only place in all of Prince George’s County you can get octopus,” said Clark.
Pagonis said all the food is made in-house: from the spanakopita to the spit-roasted lamb. Pagonis said they follow a “first stuff in, first stuff out,” rule when preparing their food and making sure all meals cook to the proper temperature.
Robert L. Buchanan, professor at the University of Maryland Department of Nutrition and Food Science, said restaurants should follow the simple guidelines outlined in the Food and Drug Administration food code.
Buchanan said it is sometimes easier for larger corporations to follow the rules rather than single restaurants because they have training.
Pagonis said he learned safe-kitchen practices from culinary school. He makes sure his employees abide by these rules to ensure quality food. He noted the College Park location recently passed its initial health inspection with Prince George’s County Health Department. Buchanan said the inspection process is “not cheap, but they have to do it to stay in business.”
Photos Courtesy of George Pagonis