Having kept downtown’s time-crunched workers well fed for nearly 30 years, it’s no surprise that locals hold restaurateur Kostas Fostieris in high esteem. One time that well-earned appreciation managed to shock the proprietor of the District’s iconic Greek Deli was during a traffic jam caused by the all-too-D.C. experience of government officials zooming about with a security detail.
Fostieris recalls being on I-66 in his van — with the logo of his carry-out friendly restaurant on the side — when then-President Barack Obama’s motorcade brought everything to a halt. He claims the Secret Service agents — many of whom were regulars at the time — started to scream, “Kostas! Kostas! Kostas!” as they passed him.
“People in front and behind me wondered, who’s this guy?” he says.
This “guy” is a D.C. institution in his own right, having worked in area kitchens since moving to the United States from Greece in the 1970s and, most notably, serving countless meals to area workers at Greek Deli since he opened it in 1990. The grab-and-go eatery has outlasted myriad sit-down restaurants, take-out spots, and fast-casual operations that have cycled through the neighborhood. And despite spending almost his entire adult life in the restaurant business, Fostieris says he became a chef by chance.
In his native Greece, Fostieris had studied engineering and served in the merchant marines and navy. He met his wife there, and soon took a trip to America. After a few weeks of traveling, he was “bored” with “nothing to do.” His father-in-law, who owned long-running restaurant the Golden Flame in Silver Spring, Maryland, invited him to visit. Fostieris worked in the kitchen for a few hours, and says it clicked immediately.
He started at the bottom — ”peeling potatoes, cleaning carrots, cleaning onions,” Fostieris says — and slowly moved up the ranks. The Golden Flame changed its menu every month, and he learned how to cook French, Italian, and German cuisine. After eight years there, he was approached by the owner of the Phoenix in Arlington, Virginia, to become its chef. And he recalls his father-in-law supporting his decision to move on. “He said, ‘It is a very good opportunity, and it’s time for you to fly by yourself.’”
Fostieris spent eight years at the Phoenix but the schedule left him burnt out. “I never saw my kids,” he says, listing all the holidays he missed. Looking for a change of pace, he decided to open “something small” that would only be open four or five days a week. A mutual friend in the Greek community offered him the space at 1120 19th Street NW, which had previously been a “regular deli.”
It was even smaller than it is now (the building’s owner eventually did Fostieris a favor and built out another few yards of space). And, like he did at the Golden Flame, Fostieris worked his way up slowly, from serving only one hot food item a day out of a small steam table, to the larger menu he offers today featuring meatballs, pastitsio, spanakopita, and his D.C.-famous avgolemono soup.
That expanded menu keeps locals coming back, day after day, year after year. During the lunch rush, the line often extends down the block, and it’s not unusual for the restaurant to be out of food by 2:30 p.m.
Fostieris attributes his success to cooking “like [his] mother used to cook:” preparing everything from scratch, without additives or preservatives, and making just enough for the day. ”People appreciate that,” he says.
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- Greek Deli Changed the Price of Its Avgolemono [Washingtonian]
- Best of D.C. Reader Poll: Best Downtown Lunch 2013 [Washington City Paper]
- All prior Lifers coverage [EDC]