a la grecque is a true family restaurant, with an exciting air of theatrics.
The eatery, in the Great Ocean Road town of Aireys Inlet, is owned and run by Kosta Talimanidis and his wife, Pam. Their eldest son Alex works the kitchen and is also a partner in the business. The first thing I notice about Kosta is his bright yellow sunglasses.
“You like them?” he asks, as we sit outside his restaurant on the Great Ocean Road. I wonder where on earth you could purchase such attention-grabbing shades. “I got them at an op shop,” he replies. “In Salonika.”
Kosta and I are chatting on the spacious veranda over a smooth coffee and a kourabie that melts in my mouth. Around us, dogs are tied to trees, sunsmart children play on the lawn and their parents nibble at crumbling biscuits.
While I’m eyeing someone’s kouroulakia, Kosta beckons his youngest son, Dom, who joins his family for the summer as a waiter. “Come and meet Margarita,” he sings loudly, turning heads at the nearby tables. But no-one’s really surprised at his theatrical manner.
It’s a bit of a legend around Victoria’s surf coast, and it’s surely part of the restaurant’s appeal. But, Kosta is quick to point out, you can’t base a successful restaurant on a dramatic character. People come to eat.
And when it comes to the food, the restaurant’s philosophy is anything but dramatic. “We try to keep the food as fresh as possible, turn it over quick and put it on the plate looking simple, clean and elegant,” Kosta says with a shrug. It’s a philosophy that has served them well since Kosta arrived in Australia in 1974. With Pam, he spent 27 years at the helm of Lorne’s booming Kostas Taverna.
In 2002, frustrated they couldn’t develop the restaurant and feeling like they’d learned all they could there, the pair sold Kostas and planned to retire. But Kosta says he was drawn back to the restaurant business because he wasn’t quite done. So, seven years in, how is a la grecque going? “It’s going fantastic, you can see for yourself,” Kosta says, waving a bronzed arm across the sprawling tables filled with people.
We stick our heads into the kitchen, where Pam, Alex and several other staff are preparing for a busy lunch rush. They don’t have time to stop and look out the window, but the garden next to them bursts with lemon trees, grape vines and herbs in pots – all used in the restaurant.
Kosta tells me they use the leaves for dolmades. Kosta and Pam grow as much of their own food as they can, farming dozens of chickens, ducks, alpacas and pheasants in their 7-acre block just out of Lorne. “So even though we live at the beach, we keep a lot of the village characteristics,” Kosta says.
“We’re basically working on freshness, local produce, local foods that come from around the place.” He says, since Mediterranean food became popular here in the 1970s, Australians have recognised it’s a perfect fit with the warm climate.
“People love the Greek olive oil, they love the feta, they love the way Greeks cook on the BBQ with olive oil, very simple,” he says. Every year, in winter, the restaurant closes for three months, and Kosta and Pam return to Kosta’s village, Polypetron. Pam’s 2009 book, ‘a la grecque: Our Greek table,’ details their annual trips to northern Greece, with recipes, stories from the village and stunning photography.
Written from the perspective of someone who has married into the culture, it’s filled with great secrets such as how to buy the best calamari, how to make great fish stock and how the women compete to make the best spanakopita (Pam says the secret is good quality butter).
The book, like the restaurant and the family who run it, is full of charismatic characters and charming stories. But Kosta says the secret ingredient of his career in the restaurant industry isn’t the charm or the attention-grabbing accessories..
“a la grecque is doing so well because we’re all very focused, and we know in our family that if you want to be successful, you have to go through a lot of pain,” he says.
“And the job doesn’t finish with one year of success or two years, you have to be there day after day. You are only as good as your last meal. That’s the story.” a la grecque is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, at 60 Great Ocean Road, Aireys Inlet 3231. Telephone: 03 52 896922.
Open seven days a week from mid December until mid March Off season open Wednesday to Sunday. Closed for annual holidays from Mid June to first week of August.