Popular Greek restaurant moves into new digs on Highway 20 in Oak Harbor

Zorba’s Greek and Italian Restaurant owners Helen and Chris Pantoleon pose for picture with head chef George Pardington in the kitchen of their new digs off Highway 20, formerly the Red Sky - Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times
Zorba’s Greek and Italian Restaurant owners Helen and Chris Pantoleon pose for picture with head chef George Pardington in the kitchen of their new digs off Highway 20, formerly the Red Sky
— image credit: Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times

Following a two-month closure, one of Oak Harbor’s favorite eateries is once again open for business.

Zorba’s Greek and Italian Restaurant, which had been located on SE Pioneer Way for the past 12 years, reopened its doors Aug. 15 at its new location next to the Coachman Inn off Highway 20 on the north side of town.

Evidently, the two months it took to renovate their new digs was a long time to wait for many of their most loyal customers. According to owner Helen Pantoleon, from day one they have been busy with regulars and new customers alike who are starving for their favorite Greek dishes, from Slovakia lamb and hummus, to calamari and salads sprinkled with a healthy dose of feta cheese.

“We didn’t even advertise,” she said.

Pantoleon and her husband, Chris Pantoleon, bought Zorba’s in 2001 from relatives. The Greece-born couple were living in Bellingham and were on the lookout for opportunity and a good place to raise children.

Buying the restaurant, which is named after the 1946 novel and later cult classic film “Zorba the Greek,” was a no-brainer as both were more than a little familiar with the industry. Helen Pantoleon’s parents were restaurant owners, and Chris Pantoleon began his 32-year career in the business as a dishwasher at the age of 15.

So they bought it, and the rest as they say, is history.

In a demanding and competitive industry, the Pantoleons have turned a 40-seat “hole-in-the-wall” establishment to a bustling town favorite. While much of their success is no doubt tied to their great food — all their recipes are original — Zorba’s longevity may also be connected to sound business decisions.

For example, people are often hesitant to try new things, so the Pantoleon’s strive for consistency when it comes to taste. If a person bets on a dish with a suspicious name and wins, it had better taste the same the next time they order it, whether it’s a week, a month, or even a year later. Consistency matters in the ethnic food business, Helen Pantoleon said.

For those less willing to gamble, such as children, they broadened the menu to include things like cheeseburgers, Chris Pantoleon said. They’ve also been careful not to raise prices over the past three years. Those may seem like small things but they’ve been an important ingredient to their success, especially over the past few years while the country has been in the grips of a recession, he said.

Their decision to move to a new location was also made for business purposes. The Pantoleon’s have owned the building off Highway 20 for five years but have had trouble keeping a tenant, the most recent of which was Red Sky. It was financial strain, and when the city agreed to move forward with the SE Pioneer Way improvement project, the decision to move became clear.

“That was the final reason,” Chris Pantoleon said.

They supported a two-way street plan, but the one-way choice was not their main worry. The biggest concern, said Chris Pantoleon, was the construction that would need to take place to complete the project. Months of work would be a disruption to business, he said.

While the Pantoleon’s say their growth and success has come with price, namely it’s a lot of work, it has paid off both professionally and personally. Not only have they ended up with rock-solid customer base — it’s not uncommon to see some of their regulars as often as two or three times a week — but they’ve made some good friends too, Helen Pantoleon said.

“They almost become like family,” she said.

Zorba’s is now open seven days a week, serving lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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