By Marisa Marsey
When I called Orapax’s owner Nick Seretis to schedule an interview for the scoop on the treasured neighborhood Greek restaurant’s makeover – its refreshing new Santorini-styled look, a liquor license to unleash creative cocktails (I’ll have a Mediterranean Mule, please) and menu updates – he made sure I met with his daughter, general manager Nicole, instead of him. Even more than the metamorphosis at the spot his Greek immigrant dad Louis opened over half a century ago on the corner of Redgate and Orapax in Norfolk, this might be the oracle that Orapax is poised to push forward into the next generation.
“One of the biggest reasons for the renovations is the rise of the Chelsea District,” says Nicole. “We wanted to create an environment on the same hip level, make ourselves relevant, but be true to who we are.”
They’ve achieved that and more. Gone are the quaint but fusty carpets dangling from the rafters, the walls now awash in a fresh, feta-white shade with streamlined banquettes and spiffy tiled floors in the dining room. In lieu of Aegean bric-a-brac are blown up black and white photos of the interwoven history of Orapax and the Seretis family. (A teenaged Nick making pizza here, Louis and his wife Harriett on their wedding day over yonder.)
There’s an attractive granite-topped, wood-rimmed bar and lounge on hardwood flooring, and a four-season patio assumes the footprint of the erstwhile outdoor seating. With a rattan ceiling and panoramic windows it provides shelter, yet feels al fresco.
Outfitted with high top tables, that 50-seat patio even has a bar of its own and a separate entrance, allowing for private events. But this languorous Saturday it’s packed early with folks sipping sangria (the red version is tinged with Cherry Heering, the white with ginger liqueur) and Alter Ego by Smartmouth (the brewery’s a block away) while digging into Greek salads, souvlaki, gyros and wonton chicken pizza.
Wait a sec, wonton chicken pizza? That’s right. Nick and longtime chef Tina Wiggens broke borders into cotemporary global terrain with such as nachos and jerk shrimp-stuffed pita pockets. Gluten-free pizza is now an option and burgers feature grass-fed beef. But mainstays like moussaka and spanakopita still hold sway.
It’s as if they heeded the advice in My Big Fat Greek Wedding when the bride’s brother Nicholas channels Dear Abby, “Don’t let your past dictate who you are, but let it be part of who you will become.”
Nicole (26) chuckles, ticking off other parallels to the movie: father-daughter working together in a restaurant, a preponderance of relatives named Nicholas or some variation thereof. “And we Windex everything, too,” she says. “But most of all family is everything.”
One of Nicole’s sisters, Kelsey (25), is the bar manager, and the other, Angela (23), waits tables when not working full-time as marketing coordinator at Live Nation. “How do you spell Harriett?” Nicole yells back into the kitchen to Angela, whose middle name is their grandmother’s first, when I ask while note-taking. Tight-knit, they watch each other’s backs. “We can read each other’s minds, know each other’s moods, and jump in to help whenever needed,” shares Kelsey who’s about to start nursing school.
One of their two brothers, Anthony (19), recently joined the military but Alex (13), the youngest, is working pantry. “We all started as salad girls,” says Kelsey. “It’s not just a restaurant. It’s our culture; it’s our home.”
So Nicole admits she was nervous when they started brainstorming a dramatic overhaul and ideas ran rampant. But in stepped designer Amy Stanley, observing that the restaurant had gorgeous bones and needed mainly cosmetic changes to be current.
Nick’s brother Jimmy was the general contractor ensuring that they stayed true to their roots, creating a modern space as warm and welcoming for Louis’s cronies as well as the food truck generation. “That’s Jimmy’s daughter, my cousin Stephanie, and I’m the little girl on her lap,” Nicole points out one of the photos in a stucco alcove. “She helped name some of the cocktails.” Drinks, like The Blue Lantern (Smirnoff vodka, Blue Curacao, lemon juice, simple syrup and Sprite) named after Louis’s first place on 21st Street, honor the late patriarch, too.
Orapax began in 1966 as a western-themed bar (so folks would remember the location, Louis shrewdly called it after the Street with its fortuitous Greek sound; it’s actually the name of a Powhatan tribal village). Lamberts Point dockworkers and railway men congregated there to shoot pool and gobble “poor man’s sandwiches” (Spam and cheese on Mary Jane bread).
Nick took over in 1980, and is proud Nicole has decided to go “all in.” “It was one hundred percent my decision to work here full-time and he’s taken me under his wing,” she says. “He’s the leader, but he values my opinions and ideas.” They recently introduced live music and paint nites, and Instagram Tuesdays: tag a picture of your entrée for a free baklava.
A newlywed, Nicole’s married name is Moshenek but around here she’s still Seretis. She only half-jokes she’s always working so her husband Michael knows that if he wants to see her, he comes here. (Maybe that’s why he installed the bar lighting.) “We don’t have kids yet but someday it would be a dream for them to be a part of this if we could last that long,” she mulls the family legacy. “We’ve already been more than 50 years in business. That’s a blessing.”
1300 Redgate Ave., Norfolk. 757-627-8041. Lunch and dinner Mon.-Sat. (pizza $8-17, sandwiches $10-12, entrees $13-19). Available for private events, delivery, take-out, catering. orapaxrestaurant.com
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