The Daily Gamecock

Columbia's 'Cheers': Greek Boys fosters community through Greek American cuisine, family history

The inside counter, right below a row of menus where customers will place their orders. The restaurant provides both indoor and outdoor seating.
The inside counter, right below a row of menus where customers will place their orders. The restaurant provides both indoor and outdoor seating.

Walking down the sidewalk behind the Hub, one might notice a little corner shop with two grinning cartoon Greek men staring back at them. This restaurant, with its outside tables in the shade of the Sumter Street Parking Garage, is called Greek Boys.

The two Greek smiles along the window are the trademark of this 17-year-old restaurant. Serving a blend of modern American flavors with a traditional Greek flair, the restaurant is often busy at lunchtime with workers and city folk hungry for a midday meal.

Employees said everyone in the restaurant could pretty much agree on the feeling of community within it.

“I always call it the 'Cheers' of Columbia, 'cause I'm not kidding you, when we see people, we can see them anywhere from two to five days a week. They will spend their money here, and they will spend it every day if they could," Olivia Menez, an employee of 13 years, said. "I can probably tell you about 75% of them, about their lives, not just their names."

According to Mendez, Greek Boys is her forever job, and the only way she would leave is if she was fired. While working there, she has helped numerous people because of the connections she makes with customers, such as lawyers and doctors. She even spent time taking care of a Greek Boys regular that needed help after she became ill.

Mendez and her coworker, Michelle Long, were in agreement that the salmon was a pillar of the restaurant. Long, a longtime friend of the owner, has also worked there for many years and is a part of the Greek Boys community.

"What I like about working here is I get to work with a lot of fun people. And we get to know our customers and actually make friends with a lot of the customers," Long said.

Greek Boys opened in the early 2000s when George Samellas decided Columbia needed a lunch spot that stood out from everything else downtown. An alumnus of the 1995 class of USC, he worked in sales for about 10 years before deciding he wanted to go into the restaurant business. 

“I'd go around downtown and really, truly, the only thing down here when I opened was like, sandwich shops. It was like everyone just had a sandwich, sandwich, sandwich,” Samellas said. "And I always said, 'Man, you know, if I did something similar [to Zorba's] downtown, it would kill it; like, it would do awesome.'"

Samellas is the son of a Greek man who owned a restaurant on USC's campus called Grammy’s Ice Cream and Sandwich Shop during the 1970s and '80s. His father had also previously worked in the restaurant business at Zorba’s, another Greek restaurant located in Irmo.

When Samellas opened Greek Boys, his retired father became a worthy addition behind the desk.

"He was in here every day; I'm talking like 5 a.m., and he was from that generation that just worked ... In about 2009 [my mom] retired, and she came to work with me full time," Samellas said. "They both worked here, up until they passed away. So, it's been kind of a cool thing. It's been — not too many people can work with their parents."

Today, their pictures hang on the wall at Greek Boys, and even after his father's passing, the restaurant holds on to many of his influences. Samellas said while working with his father, they would constantly argue over whether or not the Greek dressing needs lemon. While it is not typically added alongside Greek dressing, Samellas' father demanded it due to his classically Greek appreciation of "lemon juice on everything."

"He would always give me a hard time," Samellas said. "Every time he was back there and making it, it had lemon juice."

Over time, they reached a compromise and perfected the recipe as a combination of their tastes, a common theme throughout the hybrid American-Greek menu. Today, nearly 60 gallons of the dressing goes into their food, and the framed memory of Samellas Sr. watches it all.