Going Greek: How Nicholas and George Pagonis of Kapnos Are Building a Dining Empire

Brothers Nicholas and George Pagonis have been working together since they were in elementary school. Their father, Tony, owned The Four Seasons, a classic Greek diner, in Alexandria, Virginia. As the older brother, Nicholas started in the kitchen when he was in second grade; George followed a year later. Both were self-proclaimed “toast boys,” manning the industrial grade toaster on the weekends to put out thousands of slices over the course of a shift. For their efforts, they would take home up to $60 each – big money for little kids. They spent it on sports equipment, Nintendo games, and Starter jackets. “We never had to shake our parents down or wait for our birthdays,” says George.

In middle school though, their paths diverged. George started working the line, while Nicholas began manning the host stand and the register. This split between the front of the house and the back of the house would define their career arcs, while setting them up for a perfect partnership years down the road as the team behind a burgeoning Greek empire in the Washington, D.C. area, which includes Kapnos in the District, Kapnos Kouzina in Bethesda, Maryland, Kapnos Taverna in Arlington, Virginia, and the newly opened Kapnos Taverna inside the Hotel at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland.

The brothers ultimately attended the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, which was close enough to home that they could go back to fill in for a weekend shift if their parents needed it. Both considered following careers outside of the restaurant industry but ultimately chose to stick with the family business. In fact, their first plan was to open a next-level Greek diner they planned to call the Finer Diner.

George attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and then moved down to New York City to take a line cook position at Le Cirque. Unfortunately, the stock market crashed in 2008 and work dried up, so he moved back to D.C. for a job at José Andrés’s white-hot Greek restaurant, Zaytinya. The kitchen was headed up by rising star chef Mike Isabella. It was a fortuitous intersection for both of them.

Meanwhile, Nicholas had started managing the family diner full-time. “My father told me, ‘You’re going to work six days a week,’” he remembers. ‘I’ll give you Sundays off to watch football.’”

He followed that up with a gig as a manager for Chili’s in the Capital Region and Mykonos Grill in Rockville, Maryland, which is owned by his uncle. His brother introduced him to the team at Andrés’ Think Food Group, who placed the older Pagonis in their management training program, where he became friends with Isabella as well.

Isabella ultimately went from well-loved local chef to a nationally recognizable figure after appearing on Top Chef and Top Chef All-Stars, where he had been the runner-up. After leaving Zaytinya, he opened up the wildly successful Italian-inflected Graffiato – and he tapped Nicholas as a manager. Isabella wasn’t done yet though. Next up on his to-do list? A Greek restaurant.

George was working as a sous chef at Charlie Palmer’s Aureole in New York City at the time, but he and his brother wanted in on Isabella’s next project. They ended up partnering with him to create Kapnos. George would handle the cooking, while Nicholas would be the general manager.

“We didn’t want it to be blue and white with Zorba the Greek music in the background and the same traditional dishes,” says Nicholas.

So they went with a green-and-brown color scheme, cranked up alternative tunes on restaurant’s playlist, and put out a forward-thinking menu steeped in tradition. When it opened in the summer of 2013, it was an unqualified hit, earning rave reviews and boasting packed reservation books. That set off a wave of openings. The portfolio of Kapnos-related eateries now boasts five locations.

The brothers’ next undertaking is the QSR foray Kapnos Marketa at Isabella Eatery, which opens later this fall inside Tysons Galleria mall in McLean, Virginia. Expect gyros, the spreads, and filo pies. “If we ever go fast casual, this is what it will look like,” says Nicholas.

After that, who knows? In the meantime, here are four tips from the Pagonis brothers on how to build a Greek restaurant empire.

Elevate your wine and cocktails game.

“I would go to Greek restaurants and they’d only have Greek table wines, really cheap stuff,” says Nicholas. “But when we would go on trips to Greece, we discovered that there are so many great wines that we wanted to showcase. And we worked hard to bring flavor profiles from Greece into the cocktail program.” Beverage director Taha Ismail highlights unique spirits from the region, like ouzo (an anise-flavored aperitif) and mastika (a resin-flavored liqueur).

Travel for inspiration.

“When you’re always in your own restaurants, you get stuck in a box,” says George. Ever since they were children, the boys have made annual pilgrimages back to Greece to see their extended family, practice their Greek, and learn about the culture. Now those trips double as research expeditions for their restaurants. George makes a point of going somewhere new in the country each year – Crete and Santorini were recent stops – to ensure he is experiencing the width and breadth Greece’s culinary culture.

Remember Greek food isn’t monolithic.

The food varies depending on geography. In the town of Skoura, where the brothers’ parents grew up, there’s an emphasis on traditional dishes, like oven-roasted leg of lamb with potatoes, red wine-braised rabbit, and stuffed peppers. In the islands and along the coastline, seafood is the focus. And in the northern mountain region, filo pies and casseroles are common fare. George strives to pay homage to the country’s broad array of regional cuisines across the various Kapnos concepts.

Twist up tradition.

“We wanted to separate ourselves from everyone else,” says George. “You have to have the Greek flavors but reinterpret the dishes.” Caviar complements the traditional carp roe in the taramosalata, which features a base of cauliflower, rather than the usual bread or potatoes. Rather than offering straightforward pita, Pagonis puts out a puffy, soft round that’s more similar to Israeli laffa bread. And beef souvlaki gets marinated in a mix that includes Korean gochujang sauce.

Photo credits: Greg Powers (food); Nevin Martell (Nicholas and George Pagonis); Januari Jai Media (Kapnos exterior).