by Julie Lindow
Souvla has been open for less than a year and yet it already plays a role in the culture of San Francisco that is far beyond a place for a quick bite. Souvla owner/chef Charles Bililies was inspired by Greece, not just the delicious souvlaki acquired from hole in the wall vendors in Athens, but also the communal eating experience, the sense of citizenship and place.
Souvla’s huge front windows are open to the street. At the sidewalk bar one can sip wine, watch and talk to neighbors passing by, or turn and ponder the thoughtfully designed interior. Alternatively, one can order take out and walk half a block to sit in Hayes Valley’s Octavia Green, a gathering place much like a Greek village square. One can also eat inside at a communal table.
The decor at first appears effortless, simple, but take time to observe the details: the button-size marble tiles on the bar, pale wood shelves, copper table tops, worry beads (aka κομπολόι, ko(m)boˈloj) and olive branches. The antique pieces, including the copper pots on the walls, are from Charles’ grandfather’s Boston Greek restaurant. The wooden beams in the ceiling and white washed walls are reminiscent of restaurants in Greece, and the large skylight gives the space a light and airy feeling of being on a Greek island. Charles traveled through Greece to collect ideas about cuisine and decor, and also gathered inspiration from the website Remodelista.
But the center piece, the grainy black and white photomural of a mustached Greek man drinking from a large bottle of booze in one hand, and holding up a chair in the other, sets the stage. A symbol of determination and playfulness, a type of foolishness that is to be both heeded and admired. A challenge to customers, to let go a little more than perhaps they thought they could, to let themselves be transformed. In the evenings in particular, under the mural, at that large communal table, a diverse group of folks, including Greek immigrants, mostly young, creative and entrepreneurial, escapees from the oppressive European Union-imposed austerity measures, gather with traditional copper carafes of Greek wine.
The lively discussions that ensue are democracy in action, Greece’s most significant export. The Greek economic nose dive has been heartbreakingly devastating. But the Greeks I know have a particular way of resisting, by simply not playing the dominate game. In Greece citizens are starting food exchanges that use barter, and other alternative systems of exchange, and those who are leaving Greece are starting innovative companies in San Francisco and beyond, and finding ways to help their fellow Greek neighbors back home. Charles, who was born in the states to Greek immigrant parents, is helping this effort by introducing Greek wines to a US audience.
He has a vision that someday Greek wines will be valued in the same way that Italian wines have come to be valued over the past thirty years from being seen as “red” to being known for the full spectrum of fine Italian varietals. Souvla not only offers fine Greek wines but they are also able to tell you all about them, and they have a retail license, so you can take a few bottles home. Most notably, Souvla features wines from the Skouras Winery. This winery is particularly special because it was founded by Dijon-trained oenologist George Skouras who is known for his pioneering Megas Oenos label. He was the first winemaker to blend Saint George, a Greek grape (aka Aghiorghitiko), with Cabernet Sauvignon. But my favorite is the Zoë Rosé, comprised of Aghiorghitiko 70%, Moscofilero 30%, grapes from the Peloponnese. I know, big new words, but they are exciting on the mouth! The Zoë Rosé’s vibrant red berry fruits and crisp acidity compliments all the dishes at Souvla in such a delicate and delightful way. But what I love the most about Greek wines are their terroir. In some wines, one can taste the minerals of the ancient fertile soil and smell the air of the Mediterranean sea. One may not be able to afford a visit to Greece, but one can dream in a glass.
Finally, the food, that which everyone, everywhere, gathers around. Souvla has become beloved so quickly for many reasons, but most importantly, the food is outstanding. Enjoy succulent spit-fired lamb, pork, or chicken in a Greek pita bread or a more modern take, in a salad with kale and the most delicious salty mizithra cheese shaved on top, some citrus, mild sweet pickled pink onion, some baby radish and cucumber slices. Each bite is a symphony. A tender savory bite of locally-raised organic lamb, balances with the salty, sweet, and sour notes, and contrasts with the crunch of fresh kale or romaine, paired with a refreshing glass of Zoë Rosé. The fries are dangerously perfect and the yogurt dipping sauces far superior to ketchup or mayonnaise. Top it off with softy style Greek yogurt in a New York City “Greek” paper coffee cup, with sour cherry syrup imported from Greece. Charles started out in Napa at the French Laundry as Thomas Keller’s culinary assistant. He also worked at Bouchon and Michael Mina, and helped open RN74 and served as assistant general manager there. He began roasting whole lamb on Easter in his backyard for friends, and like many of us with a relationship to Greece, saw the need for more affordable yet high quality Greek-inspired food in San Francisco. The food is so delicious, and affordable, we eat there at least once a week.
Charles and the entire amazing Souvla team go above and beyond being just a restaurant by providing the neighborhood with a communal gathering place, and with stories, stories about the food, the wine, their own journeys, and Greece.
Julie Lindow (aka Jules Lind) is currently working on a series of detective novels set in 1940s San Francisco. Living in and creating a continuum from past to present makes for many a foggy evening walking through time, up and down hills, from libraries, to downtown, to the grand Pacific Ocean. As editor of Left in the Dark: Portraits of San Francisco Movie Theatres she wishes she were spending more time in San Francisco’s historic movie houses, what is left of them, but there has been a lot of work to do lately.