On a corner in Astoria, across the street from a bright blue-domed Orthodox church and in the shadow of the towering viaduct that carries Amtrak trains out of New York and towards New England, Gregory’s 26 Corner Taverna has been quietly recreating Greece for 13 years.
At lunchtime in the outdoor patio, you mostly hear Greek spoken as old friends meet and order spreads of whole grilled fish, octopus and slabs of feta cheese sprinkled with oregano. A fisherman from out on Long Island might stop by with his catch of the day on ice for the owner, Gregory, to choose from, just like at a restaurant along the Greek coastline. After finishing their meals, each table gets free dessert, a tradition of Greek hospitality. At Gregory’s, it’s always a plate of cinnamon-topped halva made with imported Greek farina. Down to the cozy dining room filled with model ships and bright blue evil eye amulets, this place evokes life on the islands itself.
Natalie, a veteran server originally from Ukraine, has worked at the taverna for 12 years – since before it was “Gregory’s” – and during a recent visit seemed to act as the restaurant’s institutional memory. She was working for the Greek-Czech restaurateur who first owned the place when Gregory Bletsas started to become a regular. “When the owner got a little sick, he sold it to Gregory. And then Gregory found me,” she says, thinking back to a year or so into her time at the taverna. “He’s like a part of my family.” Gregory is somewhat reserved, and when the two are working together in the restaurant, Natalie does most of the talking.
As has long been a tradition for Greek immigrants to the United States, Gregory started off working in diners. The Greek-owned diner is such a prevalent phenomenon that, especially in New York, you can walk in to any given diner of a certain vintage and expect to see souvlaki and spanakopita alongside BLTs and pancakes. Working his way up from the diner circuit, Gregory paid his dues in the kitchens of a few other Greek tavernas before finally buying his place at the corner of 26th Street and 23rd Avenue in Astoria in 2006. “Gregory has been a chef for over 45 years,” Natalie says, “but this was his first place where he actually owns it.”
Gregory’s Corner is an out-of-the-way neighborhood restaurant, but it’s also quietly earned a loyal base of customers from all over New York and beyond. “Gregory doesn’t like to advertise it anywhere,” Natalie explains. “He believes in the power of word-of-mouth.” Word has certainly spread that Gregory’s is a special place because it does just about every Greek taverna dish right. The seafood dishes here are reliably fresh and delicious, from the popular grilled sea bass and octopus even down to more unusual choices like the pile of crisp fried smelts or grilled steaks of baby shark. But the mainland town where Gregory hails from, Melivia, is also famous for its meat dishes, and the taverna does impressive renditions of these as well. Roast pork and lamb are popular weekend specialties, and the souvlaki plate, made with either pork or chicken and accompanied by thick potato wedges and garlicky tzatziki, is deeply satisfying.
Vegetable dishes like lightly sautéed dandelion greens and lemon potatoes provide the perfect accompaniment and, as at many Greek restaurants, the cold appetizer platter is an essential opener for the meal. At Gregory’s, it consists of hefty scoops of tzatziki, eggplant spread, tirokafteri (a spicy feta dip) and taramosalata (the classic Greek roe dip), each adorned with a kalamata olive and warm wedges of pita nestled beside them. Natalie’s favorite dish is another appetizer consisting of lightly oiled slices of fried eggplant and zucchini arranged around skordalia, a Greek spread made from mashed potatoes and an incredible amount of crushed garlic.
The array of options here is almost overwhelming, but many regulars depend on the same dishes over and over. “A lot of neighbors come once a week,” Natalie says, “it’s like their mecca. And they will order the same thing every time they come, so I kind of fight with them like ‘no, not today, try something different!’” That’s good advice, since it’s hard to go wrong on the menu here. Natalie has some customers who have been eating at Gregory’s for 10 years, since before it expanded to the relatively roomy space it is today. “Before, it was so little, in the winter time we couldn’t fit all the people that wanted tables,” Natalie says. “People wouldn’t be able to walk between the tables! I would serve the food, people would take it and hand it to another table, because I wasn’t able to walk through.”
These days, both the patio and the dining room are comfortable and homey, with enough space to crowd each table with plates upon plates of mezze and grilled seafood. This is a place to come with a crew and sample as many things as possible, and you can always ask Natalie for her recommendations, since she knows and loves the menu back to front. “That’s why I’ve stayed here for so many years,” she jokes, “they feed me good!”