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.
“I’m a cowboy now,” Bastani said of his nearly three decades living in Oklahoma.
Once customers developed a trust in Zorba’s, the menu gradually expanded to represent other cuisines from the Mediterranean. Those dishes proved so popular that the concept quickly outgrew the confines of the restaurant space where Taco Tico came to die.
So, Bastani purchased the building where one of the Monterey Jack’s locations took its last breath before being bought out and absorbed into an ill-fated plan to go regional with the Nino’s brand. Bastani had big plans for the new space next-door to Barnes & Noble book store. So big in fact, the revamping took much longer than anticipated and the restaurant was in limbo for a brief time.
When the new place finally opened in 2007, the interior proved to be as spectacular as Bastani envisioned. Just as she had at the original location, Nina Bastani adorned the walls with mural-painting skills. But they did break the cardinal rule of decreasing the dining room in favor of a larger kitchen.
It’s worked out to become a commissary kitchen and allows them to do a brisk catering business. They rolled the dice in metamorphosing what had been a fast-casual concept into full-service for dinner. They took a tidy, simple menu that worked and expanded it to include seafood, pizza, fresh-baked bread and an array of desserts, including the inspired Baklava Creme Brulee.
Today, Zorba’s offers daily specials each day from different parts of the region. The menu represents Spain, Greece, Italy, the Middle East and Morocco.
Speaking of Morocco, one of the Bastanis’ best friends is chef Nordeen Bennai, who comes from that country and works as a consulting chef at Zorba’s. Nordeen now does monthly wine dinners at Zorba’s. This month’s wine dinner is May 21 and will feature the flavors of Spain. That event starts at 6 p.m. To make reservations, call 947-7788.
Trying new stuff
For me, Zorba’s represents an introduction to Mediterranean cuisine that didn’t originate in Italy. The first gyros sandwich I ever had was at a mall restaurant called Olga’s Kitchen, a regional chain born in Michigan back in 1970 that tried for a time to reach into the South. The sandwich wasn’t called gyros, it was an Original. I didn’t know what country it came from, I just knew I wanted to eat one as often as possible.
When Zorba’s menu expanded, I was slow to try the new stuff. A Gyros Supreme is all I cared about. But then I tried the Persian Salad and tabouli and hummus. My trust grew, so I ventured to Chicken Bandarri, Moussaka and an Osso Buco that’s perhaps the best deal on food in town. The Beef Lentil Soup is one of the best ways to fight the effects of a cold Oklahoma winter day.
The success of Zorba’s allowed the Bastanis to start a second concept called Basil, which is a throwback to the original Zorba’s location. Basil is a fast-casual concept specializing in the sandwiches that made Zorba’s famous and a few of the entrees, too. You’ll find Basil in Mid-Del at 6620 E Reno Ave, and the newest location at 211 NW 23 St. in Uptown.
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