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Nick Pashalis & Nick Tsoulos Of Manhattan’s Iconic Avra Restaurant Bring Fine Greek Dining Experience to Beverly Hills and Beyond
by Chris Salboudis
The launch of Avra Madison Estiatorio in the Fall of 2016 coincided nicely with the opening night of the 10th annual New York City Greek Film Festival, and the team hosted a lovely networking reception following the start of the festival. The bi-level 300-seat Greek restaurant is just steps between the bustling city and the main entrance to Central Park, providing the perfect venue for the celebration of Greek art, culture and heritage. The location was the home of the famous Copacabana nightclub, which inspired the Barry Manilow song of the same name. Since its launch in September 2016, Avra Madison has been known as a landmark location for people to meet: whether it was for a cozy dinner, a major power meeting, or a networking function. The state-of-the-art restaurant is ideal for bringing people together the Greek way – with amazing hospitality and food to rival no other. Over the past year, Avra Madison has quickly become a major hotspot for many high-profile members of the Greek community and for our young professional groups as well.
The Avra group is now breaking ground on a new location in Beverly Hills (233 N Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, California, 90210), which is right in the heart of the posh Hollywood/Rodeo Drive district – in the old Hakkasan space adjacent to the famous MGM building on North Beverly Drive, which is where co-owner Nick Tsoulos was diligently working during this interview. “The design and feel will be similar to that of Avra Madison. We’re shooting to launch in the late winter or early spring 2018,” he said. Of course, a main feature of the new Avra will be a big outdoor space,” he says. “We’re looking to establish a positive Greek brand in several locations. We’re currently looking into Vegas and ultimately Chicago and beyond.”
This month marks the anniversary of Avra Madison. This journey actually begins with long-time partners Nick Pashalis and Nick Tsoulos – who initially partnered up to run a chain of pizzerias before moving to the new task of running Greek-themed restaurants. In 1998 they opened Trata Restaurant on the Upper East Side by Hunter College. The restaurant was getting rave reviews all over town, absolutely flooding social media.
Famous hospitality and real estate mogul Marc Packer of the Tao Group (taogroup.com) visited Trata one day in 1999. Nick Tsoulos explains the story: “I was a tenant of Marc’s on 6th Avenue and 58th Street. He came in to my deli and I invited him to the new Greek restaurant I’d opened with Pashalis – Trata. He came for dinner, loved the whole concept of our place and said, ‘Let’s do this on a larger scale, like Milos.’ We went to look at two locations he had and decided on the 48th Street lot, which is how the deal consummated. We opened up Avra 48 in January 2000 and have been partners ever since.”
The new partnership with Marc Packer from the Tao Group (a leading restaurant and nightlife company that has developed, owned and operated many of the most successful food, beverage and nightlife entertainment venues throughout the United States for decades in New York City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Sydney, Australia) was exactly the golden opportunity that was needed to make the vision of Greece come to life in a major, game-changing way.
Stelios Stappas, General Manager, explains that it’s a combination of the phenomenal partnership opportunity and the amazing dedication of the team at Avra that makes the restaurants’ success a daily reality. “The team works very hard and very well together and so the success was very fast.”
For those who may not know, Avra 48th Street, conveniently located between Lexington Avenue and 3rd Avenue, is the hub for the American Hellenic Institute’s monthly networking initiative, which the Avra Group has graciously supported since they opened their doors in support of the professional Greek community.
Avra 48th Street was set up like a classical Grecian Villa, from its cobblestone entrance through to the open kitchen and the main dining area. The cozy Mediterranean atmosphere is emphasized with the authentic touches of imported limestone, distressed wood, tavern-style beams, stone washed walls and, of course, the courtyard doors to allow for the signature breeze that’s such a subliminal part of the Greek experience. From the get-go, the power professionals from the midtown business district flocked to Avra for everything from the executive lunch meeting to the quick business/networking drink. As business grew it became a hotspot for major networking functions, family gatherings, etc.
As phenomenal as the reviews for Avra 48th Street have always been, the team has somehow found a way to top itself and take things to the next level at Avra Madison. The menu features a combination of authentic Greek dishes with a focus on seafood and a combination of traditional platters and whimsical beverages to complement the fabulous main courses. Executive Chef Christos Phillipou has been a member of the Avra Madison team since its inception, hailing from the Culinary Institute of America in New Hyde Park, with additional training in Human Resource Management from the University of Maryland.
The architectural layout of Avra Madison was prepared by the award-winning design team at the Rockwell Group using a variety of materials including imported limestone white oak, white marble, oil-rubbed bronze, custom artwork, stone washed walls, unique light fixtures and delicate greenery to give the entire restaurant a comfortably modern yet rustic feel. Special features of this urban oasis include a lovely skylight, through which the sunlight pours in, making the main dining area the perfect lunch/brunch spot.
There is also an elaborate market-style seafood display similar to the one at Avra 48th Street, and in the warmer spring and summer months an Athenian-style outdoor seating is also available. The lower level, which seems perfect for large private parties and receptions, has a quaint reflection pool in the center of the room, which sets the tone for a laid back social atmosphere.
But the magic of this place is not specifically in the marbles, but in the finer details of the hospitable treatment you receive from the moment you walk in the door, the comradery of the team members towards each other. Everyone there is treated like a friend, which adds to Avra’s special charm.
Sitting in an exclusive interview on-site at Avra Madison with Nick Pashalis and Stelios Tsappas on a warm August afternoon with the breeze coming in from the open bay windows bringing the scent of the lemon trees placed throughout the main dining area you feel at once the sense of Greek hospitality and ease and forget the bustling city beyond the front steps.
When I mention this as we begin the interview, Stelios nods and explains that this is exactly the Avra Group’s intention and pleasure. “I am very excited working for this company because the philosophy of this group is all about the unique experience and the fantastic hospitality, which also reflects who I am and the Greek tradition of HOSPITALITY, HOSPITALITY AND MORE HOSPITALITY. That’s me. And that’s the company as well. We have it 100% thanks to the Nicks and to Marc.”
He explains it’s the reason he joined the group back in 1998, as a member of the Trata team, that it’s why he has been so dedicated to the management of the Avra Group for the past 17 years. Since the launch of Avra Madison. the Avra Group has hosted major events for billionaire John Catsimatidis, owner and CEO of Gristedes Foods, international philanthropist George Logothetis, Founder of The Libra Group and a major supporter of The Hellenic Initiative, and other high-profile members of the Hellenic Community.
“The success of the group is because we all sit down together a few times on a weekly basis and discuss anything that has to do with the restaurant – reservations, guest issues, staff performance and most importantly the food… consistently the food. We’re always trying and sampling and discussing the food to compare it and see if it’s being made the way our moms would make it, you know, the real, authentic way. We work hard to make sure that we are always really using all the best ingredients so we consistently have the best quality and can offer the most authentic Greek experience to everyone who walks through these doors.”
Stelios goes on to explain that this requires the constant import of fish from all over the world, importing Greek sea salt as well as several specialized products from the Greek islands, including wild mountain teas from Crete, olive oil from Kithira and home-made Halloumi from Cyprus.
Asked what inspired him and his partners to take on the endeavor of creating such a remarkable urban oasis in the heart of Manhattan, Mr. Pashalis, who has modestly allowed his General Manager to do most of the talking up to this point, explains with a humble smile, “You know, Nick and I have been in the restaurant business together for years and we are like family, which not everyone can say. Now, Greek food is popular, but you have to know how to do things the right way. To do that you have to know how to give people something that they can’t find anywhere else – a real experience. I like what we’re doing here because people can come – not only the Greeks, but everyone – and they learn who we are here and they come to know what it is to have a nice Greek experience. It’s not just the food, it’s everything….
‘Really, it’s an honor for me – for all of us, the team – to be able to have a place like this and to be able to work with these partners and this team. It’s not something that everyone can do, and it’s nice. I feel like when I am here that it’s my place, a second home, and I’m happy to be able to do this for people, to offer this unique experience to them.”
Co-owner Nick Tsoulos was interviewed remotely because he has been traveling between sites as the Group focuses round-the-clock on preparations for the grand opening of their new location in Beverly Hills. We asked Mr. Tsoulos what it is that makes the Avra project work so much more like a family than like a business. “We are family. Nick and I are first cousins. I was in the business – in the fast food, deli industry – before we started the pizzerias, then we decided on the Trata and to make Greek food the way our mothers and grandmothers had made it.”
When asked about how each member of the busy executive team manages to balance work and life, Mr. Tsoulos explains that the group is now established enough that it functions with a very efficient corporate model. “We work out of an office with great systems and standardized training. And of course we have a good team that works for us. It’s like a community. You know, most of our employees at Avra 48th Street have been there since we opened our doors in 2000.”
Finally, when asked what advice to offer someone new to the industry, Mr. Tsoulos advises not to go into the endeavor lightly. “It’s a hard business. It’s not as easy as it may seem. It takes a lot of dedication and hard work.” He chuckles, “Actually, my sons want to go into the business….”
With good fortune and dedication I’m sure the apple won’t fall far from the tree.