I know that I’ve come to the right place, 44 Leigh Avenue in the John Witherspoon neighborhood in Princeton. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve taken a curious cosmic turn and been transported to a side street on a Greek isle, well away from the tourist hangouts.
How else can I explain the sun-washed blue and white facade before me, the freshly painted white concrete picnic tables? And the understated sign — a sign that doesn’t shout, but beckons — that I’ve arrived at the front door of Local Greek, the latest addition to a roster of restaurants that aspire to burnish Princeton’s reputation as a dining destination.
The interior beckons as well. First impression: this is not your stereotypical Greek diner. You’ve been there; bustling places that serve up Mount Olympus-sized portions of the usual suspects. Local Greek presents an attractively appointed space that offers a combination restaurant, bakery, and specialty food shop. OK, you will hear the strains of Greek music in the background, but at a volume that permits quiet conversation.
The main dining room seats 22 —with tables for six, four, and two, and a long table for 10, all constructed of sturdy, rustic wood. Seating consists of equally sturdy, but eminently comfortable wooden chairs. White subway tile and whitewashed walls offer a pleasing contrast to the wooden floors. Sprigs of lavender grace every table — perhaps a reference to its use by the Greeks more than 2,000 years ago, and the writings of Pliny the Elder noting its healing powers. Containers of Kalas brand sea salt from Greece also help set the mood and are available for purchase.
A refrigerated case contains a selection of Greek cheeses and both green and oil-cured olives, next to a display of sweet and savory Greek pastries; all available to take out. You’ll also discover a well-chosen array of imported foods; coffee, grape leaves, barley rusks, honey and more.
To the left is a similarly appointed dining room that seats eighteen in a cozy space that encourages conversation. To enter, diners pass under a string of letters that proclaims “We are all family” in Greek. “When strangers to a Greek town wander by, it’s not unusual for locals to invite them in and share their hospitality,” explained the owner of Local Greek, Tony Kanterakis. “That’s the feeling I’m trying to create here, to capture the spirit of the Greek people.”
In addition to Local Greek, Kanterakis operates New Athens Corner, a well-regarded specialty Greek bakery and gourmet deli in Highland Park, founded by his mother, Chrisanthe, in the 1990s.
The breakfast, lunch, and dinner items ($8 to $16) on Local Greek’s menu are available all day. Sweet and savory homemade style pastries and desserts ($6 to $8) are made fresh daily in the restaurant’s bakery.
Local Greek’s specialty, Greek meze — small plates — are available daily from noon to closing. Offerings change weekly and are posted online. Selections on the opening day menu included moussaka, oven-baked lamb, yemista (stuffed tomato and peppers), marinated octopus, Soutzoukakia (Cretan style meatballs with tomato sauce), and Greek-style dips including tzatziki, eggplant and spicy feta, Loukaniko sausage, and fava puree topped with octopus and caramelized onions.
One thing that sets Local Greek apart from many other Greek-style eateries is the thoughtful presentation of its breakfast, lunch, and dinner offerings. To cite one telling example; on a recent visit I chose the Greek Parfait. Instead of the expected mashup of ingredients served in a tall parfait glass, it arrived on an attractive rectangular china serving piece. Two generous side-by-side scoops of organic Greek yogurt shared the space with fresh fruit and walnuts, all topped with a drizzling of organic Greek honey.
I asked Tony Kanterakis why he chose Princeton for his second Greek outpost. “People who have been coming to my Highland Park location for years from Lawrenceville, Princeton and Trenton kept asking me ‘Why don’t you come to Princeton?’ ‘Come to Princeton!’” he explained. “I waited until I found the right chef, from Greece, waited until I could put together my dream team.”
Perhaps the dream that Kanterakis is trying to realize at Local Greek can best be summed up by the establishment’s motto, emblazoned on a banner in the dining room. “Small Bites, Big Smiles” it proclaims.
Local Greek, 44 Leigh Avenue, Princeton. 609-285-2969. www.localgreeknj.com. Tuesday to Thursday, 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. BYOB.