Table Talk

Table Talk

What’s happening on the local food scene

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From left: The Big Greek Cafe’s director of operations, Thomas Strawser, co-owner Simos Marmaras and his father, Vassilios Marmaras, who opened the first branch of the chainlet in 2007. Photo by Joseph Tran

Big Greek Legacy

When you walk into any of the four locations of The Big Greek Cafe—Silver Spring, Rockville, Kensington or Bethesda—you will see a large photograph of Koralia Marmaras, the matriarch who inspired the business after she died in 2006 at the age of 61. “Her dream was to open a restaurant that served the food she served at home,” says her son Simos, 47, who co-owns the restaurants with his twin brother, Nikos.

In 1968, Vassilios Marmaras immigrated to Washington, D.C., from the Greek island of Andros and started working in restaurants. Three years later, he opened a restaurant in northeast Washington called Tom’s Grill, and then in 1972 a fine-dining steak and seafood restaurant in downtown Silver Spring called Golden Flame. Also that year, Koralia came to the United States. The couple married and settled in Rockville. The twins were born later that year. (Marmaras sold Tom’s Grill soon after.)

“My brother and I started working at Golden Flame when we were 13, dishwashing, peeling potatoes and onions, then pretty much every other job over the years,” says Simos, who went on to attend L’Academie de Cuisine cooking school in Gaithersburg (now closed), graduating in 1996.

He recalls that their mother got into the business once the boys were grown, helping with the carryout window and the books. In the evening, she’d sit by the entrance and greet every customer that came in.

“When she died in 2006, it was hard. We were mama’s boys,” Simos says. “So we decided to make her legacy into a reality by opening a fast-casual place to show off her great food. She wanted Greek food to be accessible to everyone. We took all her recipes and opened The Big Greek Cafe in downtown Silver Spring in 2007, featuring spanakopita [spinach and feta cheese in phyllo pastry], moussaka [layered eggplant, ground beef and potato casserole topped with nutmeg-laced bechamel sauce], pastichio [a Greek version of lasagna], tzatziki [yogurt and cucumber dip], souvlaki and other specialties. It was an instant success.” (Having tasted the dishes just mentioned, we can see why. The moussaka, abundant and packed with flavor, rivals any we’ve had in Greece.)

“We chose Silver Spring because we knew the area and my father had a customer base there. People who knew my mom and Golden Flame came to support us. Word of mouth is still the best advertisement,” Simos says.

The Rockville location, which opened in 2012, got off to a rocky start in the first several months but turned around when Nikos came up with a promotion—$5 gyro Wednesdays. Says Simos, “It was cheap enough to get people to try it and we were confident that once they tried it, they would love it.” It worked. Now they run the promotion at all the locations.

The Kensington outlet opened in White Flint Plaza in 2016, and the Bethesda branch opened in 2018. Even though Vassilios Marmaras retired in 2013, he checks in on his sons’ restaurants regularly. “But my mother was the glue and still is. She was a large woman and in control at all times. She was a fierce bitch,” says Simos lovingly. “And you can quote me.”

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