By all accounts, Themis Mourelatos, chef and owner of A Taste of Greece, a quaint 30-seat Greek restaurant in River Edge, embodies the great American success story.
Having grown up dirt-poor in Greece — "We didn't have heat or electricity," he said — Mourelatos learned how to cook at a free government-sponsored culinary school. He came alone and penniless to the United States 20 years ago and worked tirelessly to build a thriving BYOB.
For the past 17 years, Mourelatos filled the seats of his open-kitchen restaurant by, as he put it, "pushing and pushing myself" to offer what some claim is the best avgolemono (chicken lemon soup) in North Jersey, deeply delicious pork gyro, and brilliantly crunchy baklava — and by serving more daring, more, in his words, "fine-dine" dishes such as Greek-coffee-rubbed Tomahawk steak, pan-seared duck in a blackberry reduction doused with sweet Greek liqueur Mastika and leek risotto with lobster tail.
"My goal was always to be really good at what I do," said Mourelatos, who has a beard and always sports a knit cap. "I always wanted to give good value food that is much better than anything you can get at neighborhood restaurants, food you would have to drive into the city for."
The cozy boite was so popular, "you couldn't get in," reported Mourelatos, 49, who lives with his wife and 9-year-old daughter in a two-bedroom house in Oradell. Six years ago, to guarantee guests seats, he instituted a reservations-only policy Thursday through Sunday nights — and turned tables three times a night.
"I made this little place happen," he said. "Business was booming."
About three years ago, he was set to double the size of the restaurant by investing "a quarter-million dollars" to turn the space above it into a second, 25-seat dining room. "I spent $15,000 on drawings."
Then COVID-19 hit.
Fast forward to today and A Taste of Greece and Mourelatos are both completely different.
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Gone are the restaurant's tables and chairs, the front-of-house staff, the late-night dinner hours, the seven-days-a week service, the sauce reductions, torched ingredients, braised meats and, for that matter, silverware and dishware. A Taste of Greece pivoted and became strictly a takeout joint, sending customers home with sandwiches, salads, mousaka and spinach pie.
While the food is still high-quality, he said, "no more lamb chops, no more expensive stuff."
He couldn't be happier.
"I changed my whole life. I changed how I think. I changed my whole point of view."
He may still work hard, but he no longer feels the need to repeatedly remake his menu. He no longer puts in crazy, long hours.
"What for?" he said. "I never saw my daughter. The restaurant consumed me."
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Instead of working from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m., he begins his days now at 9 and shuts the restaurant's door at 8 p.m., allowing him time to make breakfast for his daughter in the morning and to see his wife at night.
"It's hard to be a parent and a spouse when you work all the time," Mourelatos said.
It's hard to eat well too. He used to grab whatever junk food ("lots of chips and chocolate," he said) would be in the house when he returned home. Now he has time to prepare oatmeal if he yearns for a snack — and to eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. He also gave up alcohol.
And he's got time again to pursue a passion he gave up 10 years ago: running distances.
"I was a marathon runner," he said. "I ran 11 marathons. But before I was so drained of energy, so exhausted, I gave it up."
Now he runs 80 miles a week and is planning to enter a mini-marathon in New York City on March 20.
As a result, Mourelatos lost 37 pounds and got his blood pressure and cholesterol under control, he said.
"I was overweight and the doctor told me to lose weight," he said. "But I didn't listen. I was too busy working and pushing myself. It's all under control now."
So is, he said, his temper.
"I used to butt heads with my staff, to yell." Now, he said, he is less stressed.
"I calmed down so much, people don't recognize me anymore."
But his food is still recognizable — it's still really good, diners say.
Sandy McMillan, a Hoboken resident, said she used to make the trek to A Taste of Greece once a week pre-COVID and today she stops by whenever she finds herself in the area and takes food home. "I've tried all his dishes and I love it all," she said. Among her favorites are the octopus, Greek salad, gyro platter, baklava and, of course, avgolemono.
"It is so good I would bring care packages to my friends who weren't feeling well during COVID." She added, "Themis is the American dream."
Nick Nicolaou of Fair Lawn is a fan, too.
"The lemon soup he makes is the best I've ever had," Nicolaou said. "It's better than my mother's and that's saying a lot."
He adds, "Themis is passionate about what he does. He checks every order that comes out of the kitchen, even with the takeout. I've never had any orders that were not good. He is always consistent."
And thanks to COVID-19, he is now consistently living a more balanced life.
"I built a better me," Mourelatos said, "A more positive me. I'm healthier, I'm happier, I'm better."
Esther Davidowitz is the food editor for NorthJersey.com. For more on where to dine and drink, please subscribe today and sign up for our North Jersey Eats newsletter.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: COVID changed this NJ restaurant and its chef's life for the better