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Circling the Square

Yaourti and Baklava


The policy of catering to the uninitiate has, in the running of a commercial oddity, a Greek owned restaurant which actually serves Greek food, paid decided dividends for the Athens-Olympia and its owner, John Cocoris. Greek cooking needs to be explained. Yaourti, for example, a Balkan food staple, is made by boiling ordinary milk, then cooling it, and running it through a strainer. It comes out thick, and white, and very sour; and some people who are not from the Balkans have trouble stomaching it. Baklava, a doughy kind of pastry, makes its appearance in layered squares covered with syrup. It is as extremely sweet at the other is sour.

To make sure that none of his American customers ever got any such specimen of Greek culinary without being prepared for it, John Cocoris used to explain the mysteries personally to each and every bewildered diner. Today, Greek food is better known in this locality, the Athens, like its neighbor, Jake Wirth's has become a Boston institution, and Cocoris, thanks to his zeal, is a wealthy man.

When he came over to America from Greece at the age of sixteen, one of the first things the future entrepreneur did was to run an ad in the Boston Transcript offering to work a year without pay for any family who would teach him the English language. He got twelve answers, picked one at random, a doctor's home in a small Vermont town, and within twelve months was spouting like a native. Then he became a hotel waiter and moved successively through Boston, New York, Denver, Los Angels, and San Francisco. In 1914, after two years spent back in Greece fighting in the First Balkan War he made up his mind that the time for youthful flings was over and that destiny was calling. he got a job as a waiter in a Boston hotel. Within thirteen months he saved sixteen hundred dollars and made two acquaintances who were to prove extremely useful. One of them was a wealthy and influential manufacturer, the other a prominent banking official. Mr. Forsyth got Cocoris a license, and the banker got him a loan enabling him in 1916 to start a combination pool room and Greek restaurant on Knee of carrying itself, Cocoris scrapped the pool room. The concern moved to its present location on the second floor at 51 Stuart Street in 1925 when Kneeland Street was widened.

"Today," said the Athens' owner recently with a sweeping gesture, ..this place has atmosphere. Some of the biggest people in the country have been served here. Eleanor Roosevelt, for example. Harvard professors and others who, having travelled in Europe, are dissatisfied with the usually flat tasting American dishes, are steady customers. Why sometimes Demos brings in one of his classes for a meal. George Lyman Kittredge used to come in here with his books, and spend two or three hours several times a week eating and reading. We get delegations from the students in the surrounding colleges all the time. Turks, South Americans, Spaniards, and others come because the food is spiced enough to remind them of home. But we get very few Greeks," he added as an afterthought.

The thirty-five thousand dollars now being spent on remodelling is a mere drop in the bucket compared to the yearly earnings, but Cocoris feels leery about making too many alterations. The interior of Jake Wirth's next door has hardly been changed since the turn of the century, nor has anyone ever thought seriously of ripping off the Gay Nineties brass button and black leather effects at Locke Ober's several blocks away. Some of the waiters, who have themselves been part of the scenery for twenty years or more, are disappointed that he is not planning to take out the old-fashioned, unupholstered, narrow booths. But John Cocoris, immaculate, white-haired, and clear-eyed, a prominent Bostonian, member of countless committees, sometimes called "the King of the Greeks," did not make his fortune by accident. He knows that the Athens without its atmosphere would be like a ship without a sail.

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