When Greek meets Greek they might open a restaurant, but it is rarely as fabulous, its food as succulent, its ambiance as special as Kokkari Estiatorio on Jackson Street in San Francisco. In a city known for exceptional cuisine, Kokkari has captured the Number One Rating by Zagat, meaning it is the best among the best.
Along with its sister restaurant Evvia, in Palo Alto, there is plenty for Dr. Kenneth Frangadakis, a leading cosmetic dentist, and George Marcus, real estate mogul, to celebrate. They created the special dining establishments, ignoring the naysayers who said “don’t go into the restaurant business.” The restaurants reflect the personalities of the two gentlemen and their wives, whose families struggled as kids, but who grew up to unusual success through hard work, zeal, and imagination.
Frangadakis and Marcus went to Greek school together, played basketball together, and with their careers underway, enjoyed dining out. In the 1960s, San Francisco could not lay claim to an outstanding Greek restaurant. They felt the lack. “The Greek restaurants were take-out, with paper tablecloths, Parthenons and bouzouki players,” Frangadakis says. “And so George and I said, ‘why doesn’t somebody do a Greek restaurant that’s scaled up? A nicer environment. Just great food, great ambiance and a lot of fun.’ And we kept talking to everybody, and everybody said ‘that’s a stupid idea. Restaurants are a terrible business. You’re not going to make any money.’ The thing is, we never did it to make money.
“That was never a motivating issue, why we did these restaurants at all. It was always about showcasing the food of our mothers and grandmothers, and putting that food in an environment that was absolutely beautiful.”
Founding partner Marcus told Zagat, “Kenny and I envisioned sharing our family food with our community. We did not believe Greek food had ever been represented with traditional family recipes. We wanted to make our main focus on the customer, and do everything first-rate with the best produce, preparation and service, so we thought it would take three to four years to get to a profitable state. We have been extraordinarily fortunate to have wonderful managers, chefs and servers who believe that we are on a special mission to make the Hellenic cuisine exceptional. We simply kept our eye on the customer with Greek hospitality and mom’s cuisine.”
Frangadakis and Marcus set out to do their restaurants in their own way, starting from scratch. “There were no Greek cooking schools. Nobody was really into Greek cuisine,” Frangadakis says. “So a real estate guy and a dentist went looking for a top chef, and we had no takers. What we did was find an excellent Italian chef. I have a backyard kitchen. My wife Angie and Judy Marcus, as well as my mother-in-law – three fantastic cooks – worked with the chef, teaching him our family recipes.
“We would go to the market and buy whole fish and lamb chops and everything else needed to make great Greek food. Of course, the chef had to translate the recipes to serve 500 people, but after we got over the initial phases, we were in business.
All of us are foodies. George and his wife Judy. My wife Angie has an impeccable palate. Kokkari was named after her home town on the island of Samos. Evvia was named after George’s Greek island home. Occasionally chefs like to get out of the box – add their own twist to one of our classics. We don’t mind them getting creative as long as they keep it in the Aegean mode.”
When Frangadakis talks about Kokkari, his voice rings with enthusiasm. “At Kokkari, we have a large fireplace where we actually rotisserie. It’s the most beautiful element in the restaurant. You can sit in front and see the meat being cooked – ducks and goats and lambs and pigs. You get the smells, the spices, the ambiance.” Frangadakis takes pride in what he calls the “fifth dimension. It’s the entertainment aspect, the service, the atmosphere that’s so important. We want people to have a good time. We want to make people feel warm. Hospitality and philotimo are what Greeks are all about. It’s a special feeling.”
Reading the menu makes you want to grab the next plane and head out to sample the charcoal grilled octopus, the zucchini cakes with mint dressing, the goat stew, the fish, the lamb roasted in a spit in the restaurant. Marcus, a business maverick, also brought innovations to dining scene. Says Frangadakis, “My partner George loves octopus, nobody was serving octopus before we did, nobody was serving smelts before we did this, so we brought all of this to the forefront, and now everybody copies this.”
Speaking of his own favorites, Frangadakis says, “There’s a goat stew that’s phenomenal. Our lamb chops are the best. That’s a favorite dish. The fish can be done on a grill or cooked in the oven. The whole fish is a number one seller. It can be done with potatoes and tomatoes but it’s very light. There’s the octopus appetizer. Zucchini cakes are a favorite of vegetarians. We make our own pita bread, our own ice-cream. Our spreads are the best.” He adds: “I hate to be prejudiced, but I think it’s the best Hellenic restaurant – we call it Hellenic for non-Greeks – in the world.”
If you can’t make it to San Francisco, you can consult the cookbook, Kokkari, Contemporary Greek Flavors, written by Erik Cosselman and Janet Fletcher. This gorgeous tome could grace any coffee table but a note at the beginning advises: “This is not a cookbook we want you to leave on display on the shelf. We want it to be stained with olive oil and splashed with wine, a source of laughter and pleasure at the table as you journey through Greek cooking.”
Both Frangadakis and Marcus have been awarded many honors for their work and contributions to the community. Marcus, co-founder with Frangadakis of the National Hellenic Society, also helped fund the Modern Greek Studies Program at San Francisco State, his alma mater. Says Frangadakis: “We do a lot of special events for the Greek community. George and I both belong to the Elios Society . At the Elios Charity Ball bi-annually, we honor people in the theater arts — Alexander Payne, Jim Gianopulos. George and I sponsor a VIP cocktail party at Kokkari for honored guests and their friends.” The restaurant frequently hosts celebrities and politicians. “George is very involved politically, and he was a regent at the University of California. He’s good friends with Gov. Jerry Brown, who dines with us. All the politicos come.
“When we opened Evvia in Palo Alto 20 years ago, our first chef was the grandson of Mayor Joe Alioto. We had George Christopher, the Greek-American and extremely well-known mayor of San Francisco and Alioto at the same table. So we had two former mayors of San Francisco debating the qualities of Italian and Greek cooking. It was really special.”