It’s Greek to Me

Little sandwich shop is an American success story

By Chris Wadsworth

At first glance, Greek Unique doesn’t seem like it should be the roaring success that it is. This Greek-themed sandwich shop is tucked away in an industrial/office park in Ashburn’s Beaumeade Circle area. The owners have done no advertising — zero. So how did this inauspicious eatery come to be named one of Yelp’s Top 100 restaurants in the entire nation?

To answer that question, you have to travel back several decades to the streets of New York City — Queens specifically. That’s where George Marinos and Pete Kontoulakos grew up a few doors apart from each other. Both the sons of Greek immigrants, the two became fast friends. Years later, Pete would marry George’s sister, Marcia. And the terrific trio would open up a Greek restaurant on Long Island.

That’s where the magic started.

“People would come in and ask us for various items that you wouldn’t usually see in a Greek diner. Philly cheesesteaks. Reubens,” Kontoulakos said. “We decided to give it a go and we created six or eight heros — subs — using Greek ingredients and flavors and mixing it up with traditional American food.”

The restaurant — with the unique, new menu — took off.

“It was different. It was fun. It wowed people. It was something out of the ordinary,” Kontoulakos said.

But like many kids who grow up and initially stay close to home — at some point, the trio knew they wanted to leave New York. It wasn’t about money, they say; it was about quality of life. They researched cities around the country and quickly settled on Loudoun County.

“Everything pointed to Loudoun,” Marinos said. “It was safe. Good schools. It was up and coming.”

So they packed up and moved here and quickly started searching for a spot to reestablish their unique Greek restaurant. They found a corner unit on Guilford Drive, a few buildings away from the popular Old Ox Brewery. “It reminded us of what we had back in New York. We decided right away,” Marinos said.

They opened in October 2018 with a menu featuring similar dishes to what made their restaurant special on Long Island. The focus is on sandwiches — something you don’t always think of first when someone mentions Greek food.

One of the most popular is the Helios — what Kontoulakos calls “a Philly cheese steak on steroids.” It’s made with gyro meat topped with mozzarella, mushrooms, peppers, onions, Greek-seasoned French fries, and topped with a house made spicy creamy feta.

Crazy combinations like this are where Greek Unique gets its name — it’s Greek that’s unique. Word of the vibrant food — which also includes some traditional dishes like souvlaki and spanakopita — quickly spread. First it was word of mouth, then the enormously popular Facebook page Northern Virginia Foodies took a shine to the restaurant and sang its praises to the group’s 47,000 members.

“Chef Pete is so creative with his dishes and puts a twist on nearly every dish they serve. It’s Greek with a twist,” said Ranna Golden, a moderator for the Foodies Facebook group and a Greek Unique acolyte. “They have these awesome sauces — I’m a big sauce person — and the cheese. They use a lot of cheese and sometimes [Chef Pete] will blowtorch the cheese on top of a sandwich to give it a nice smoky flavor.”

Then in January came the remarkable news that the tiny Greek Unique had been named No. 31 on Yelp’s list of the Top 100 Places to Eat in America. The restaurant and business review website says the rankings were determined by a data team that looked at factors like the number of 5-star reviews and curated the list with the help of the site’s local community managers.

Even before the high praise from Yelp, the Kontoulakoses and Marinos knew they had something special going — comparing their clientele to the gang at “Cheers” where everyone seems to know everyone and it’s like a family. But they never knew how deep this went until Marinos suffered not one, but two heart attacks this past November. Greek Unique closed for a week while Marinos was in the hospital. The outpouring of support from the restaurant’s customers was overwhelming.

“They all told me, ‘Don’t rush to open.’ They were all offering to come work in the restaurant if we needed help,” Marinos said. “It meant a lot to me. We came here not knowing anyone and now I knew people had my back. We weren’t just strangers from New York anymore.”

It seems the “unique” in their name doesn’t just apply to the food they serve, but also to the generosity and friendships this little restaurant has engendered.

As they say when celebrating in Greece, “Opa!”