If you’ve lived on the north side of Oklahoma City any time in the past 21 years, it’s hard to imagine you haven’t heard of Zorba’s Mediterranean Cuisine, 6014 N May Ave.
What you might not know is that Zorba’s is only one of three restaurants owned by Ray and Nina Bastani, who built their livelihood out of an extraordinary passion for food, a disdain for greed and a thus-far bottomless appetite to express themselves through art, no matter the medium.
More than two decades ago, Ray Bastani broke from a small restaurant partnership operating Abadan restaurants to partner with cousin Mark Javidi in a small space best known at the time for its failure to create a stronghold for the Taco Tico brand in the Oklahoma City market.
Bastani couldn’t think of a name, so they offered patrons a chance to rename the concept— without the help of social media. Yes, kids, businesses were once capable of connecting with their customers without hiring a social media guru or having a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account.
Zorba’s was the winning name back in 1993, and that name has been associated with winning the hearts and palates of Oklahomans ever since. Zorba’s has been topping local “Best of” lists since they were categorized as Greek rather than Mediterranean, and now resides in a 7,000-square-foot building with 150 seats that are rarely empty during lunch and dinner service hours, plus a fully stocked bar with signature cocktails.
The winning name Zorba’s was after the classic novel and film “Zorba the Greek.” After all, early 1990s Oklahoma City wasn’t apt to try food from the Mediterranean that originated too far from Italy. At least that was conventional wisdom.
It’s taken some time, but it’s now accepted that while “gyros” is definitely a Greek word, the sandwich made of thin-sliced ground beef on flatbread with yogurt sauce is anything but exclusive to Greece. The sandwich goes by many names in the Mediterranean, including kababs or shawarma.
But gyros is the name that stuck in this country. And while it’s pronounced yee-ros, it’s not uncommon to hear Bastani pronounce it with a long “i” as proof his business degree came with the maxim about a customer’s infallibility.
The sandwich, along with french fries and a drink, proved popular enough to expand the menu. Adding tabouli was a no-brainer since its popularity in Oklahoma dates back to the pre-statehood arrival of Lebanese immigrants. Hummus was right there with it, along with dolmas and falafel.
“Mediterranean food is simple,” Bastani said. “It’s about fresh, high-quality ingredients.”
Simple, authentic regional dishes including baba ghannouj (eggplant dip) spanakopita (spinach pie) and tiropita (cheese pie) are on the appetizer menu, along with several variations of hummus.
Growing in Oklahoma
Bastani grew up in Iran, where his father was a chef responsible for enormous government entities. He loved to cook, learning from his father and mother. He came to this country for his education and joined his brother in Oklahoma, never intending to spend his life here.
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IF YOU GO
Zorba’s is open daily from 11 a..m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, closing at 9 p.m. on Sunday. For more information, go online to zorbasokc.com