Embracing the magic touch and humanitarian values for 10+ years
By Michael Perlman
For nearly 11 years, owner Dina Stergiopoulos of Village Grill has opened her heart to Forest Hills patrons and the greater community by working long hours to freshly prepare signature Greek meals and classic American favorites.
Situated on an inviting corner of Ingram Street at 73-01 Yellowstone Boulevard, patrons have sparked friendships with the owner, waitress Angela and fellow patrons, all while enjoying diverse scrumptious foods at reasonable prices.
Along with her late husband, Panagiotis Stergiopoulos, they opened Village Grill on Feb. 28, 2012, which may seem as if it was yesterday.
He was a much-admired face of the community, but passed away on Dec. 31, 2021 after battling cancer.
“My husband was funny, outgoing and always smiling,” Stergiopoulos said.
Today her husband is fondly remembered by patrons, and she is committed to keeping his spirit alive with every meal she cooks and by continuing to give back to the community by donating meals to people in need.
Stergiopoulos will host the “Village Grill Thanksgiving Dinner Giveaway” on the Tuesday prior to Thanksgiving from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
“There will be 50 turkey meals with mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, biscuits and apple cake. My goals after my husband passed were to become a better person and try to help people and carry on his legacy,” Stergiopoulos said.
“I want to provide a warm home-cooked meal to people in need. This is a way to remember my good-hearted husband, so his soul can be at peace.”
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the couple donated a total of 40 meals to Long Island Jewish Forest Hills Northwell Health, NYC Health + Hospitals/Elmhurst and the 112th Precinct.
Patrons do not need to travel far to feel as if they are in Greece for an afternoon or dinner engagement, thanks to the charming ambiance that features the color scheme of the Greek flag, model sailboats, paintings and ceramic artwork. One can even take a Greek crash course, where a sign features catchphrases such as “kalo fagito” for “good food,” “orea mera” for “nice day” and “kalimera” for “good morning.”
Stergiopoulos was raised in America, but when she was 16, she built upon her family’s Greek heritage in Athens. Her husband was born and raised in Volos, Greece.
“We came to the USA in 2003 and got married on Oct. 28 of that year,” she recalled.
They lived in College Point and later relocated to Forest Hills, a close distance to Village Grill.
A tradition runs in the family. “Everyone in my family likes to cook,” said Stergiopoulos.
“My grandma, Pige, was an influence on all of us, as she made everything good, but her signature dish was stuffed grape leaves with rice. My grandma taught me how to prepare them two years before she passed. Mine are good, but my grandma’s were excellent.”
Pige did not use a recipe book. “Her measurements were a handful of this and a pinch of that,” Stergiopoulos chuckled.
Stergiopoulos and her husband had a dream.
“We wanted to work hard and retire in Greece at a small village outside Athens, where he could have a small parcel of land and raise his own chickens and plant vegetables,” she said. “I am focusing on the business very much these days, so I do not feel the pain that is left behind when a loved one goes away. I am very blessed that I have customers; my friends that have supported me. My customers walk into my shop and I mostly know them by name. They walk in and say, ‘Dina, what am I eating today?’ That is a beautiful feeling. I greet my customers like friends that come to visit. It’s beautiful how even customers that moved away still come to dine.”
Village Grill has a “recipe for success.” “I always say we are not perfect, since mistakes happen, especially when it is very busy. If a dish is undercooked or overcooked and is brought to my attention, I will make it right. The one thing I say and I am always proud of is that it’s fresh. This is how I managed to stay open for nearly 11 years,” she said.
Between the walls are many timeless memories.
Stergiopoulos considers the restaurant as her home that she erected with her husband, and she spends more time at the restaurant than her residence.
“It is our baby,” she said.
A memory of the recent past surfaced. “Even when my husband was ill in the wheelchair, he spent his day at the restaurant window, greeting people as they walked. He did not want to stay home.”
Another fond memory was celebrating her husband’s 55th birthday on April 9, 2021, where not only family was in attendance, but a family of close friends. To mark the occasion, there were 55 balloons.
Family-style recipes are always on the menu, in contrast to gourmet recipes.
Stergiopoulos said, “People want to eat, especially if they’re enjoying their food, so we serve a good-sized portion.” For example, a platter consists of a Greek salad, a side dish and meat. Once a patron orders a platter, they receive their salad as the meat is freshly being prepared.
“Every souvlaki and meat is cooked to order,” she continued.
Stergiopoulos is detail-oriented, which also contributes to her success.
When patrons often ask what makes a great Greek salad, her response is the olives and the feta cheese.
“I only use imported Greek feta and olives. I am in general a big cheese eater, and when I go out to eat, if another restaurant doesn’t know the brand of feta, I won’t order the salad,” she said.
Since day one, she goes on a trek for quality meat. She explained, “I don’t order meat to be delivered, but have to hand-pick it to ensure it is not laying around on a truck. I cut and marinate all of my meat at the restaurant, and it’s never frozen.”
Spinach pie is among her patrons’ favorites. “It is prepared with many fresh herbs and original feta to make the difference,” she said.
A popular soup is chicken avgolemono, featuring celery, carrots, lemon and orzo.
A unique pita sandwich is Bifteki souvlaki sandwich, which consists of a meatball with spices, tomatoes, red onions and tzatziki sauce.
A beef gyro platter (80 percent beef and 20 percent lamb) and features a small Greek salad, tzatziki, pita and a side of one’s preference.
Also available is a variety of starters, salads, burgers and wraps, such as the Santorini fish wrap and a Mediterranean wrap. Authentic sides include oven-roasted lemon potatoes and grilled vegetables.
A meal is not complete without dessert, such as baklava, galaktoboureko and rice pudding.
A full line of beverages includes Greek coffee, cappuccino and shakes.
Every day on Village Grill’s hot table, comes the “Special of The Day,” which remains identical on certain days. Stergiopoulos said, “Monday is always oven roasted chicken legs. Wednesday is spaghetti Bolognese, and Thursday it’s chicken again, since people love it. Friday is usually a fish dish, Saturday is pastitsio (Greek lasagna) and Sundays is usually beef stew. People ask me what is in this dish, and my answer always is ‘a lot of love,’ since I like to cook and create new recipes.”
Village Grill is open from 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. daily, with the exception of Tuesdays, and free delivery is available until 8:45 p.m.
On her day off, she is an early and determined riser who cleans her home and then enjoys a leisurely walk with her dog, goes shopping and watches TV with Sophie at her side.
“Cleaning is another obsession. If your space at home or in your ‘second home’ is clean and orderly, your life will be,” she said.
If Stergiopoulos decides to retire someday, she hopes to relax, but cannot visualize herself sitting and doing nothing. “I want to volunteer in helping people in any way I can, and especially young children,” she said.
Until then, her priority is Village Grill, where every day she shares her magic touch among a community of friends.
She is open to community partnerships for the upcoming Village Grill Thanksgiving Dinner Giveaway, particularly to benefit the needy. Interested organizations can email [email protected] or call 718-544-4024.