Ten months ago, Jimmy Tsolis made the heartbreaking decision to close the Seven Seas Diner, a place he'd spent the majority of his adult life. Diners are no longer profitable businesses, the Greek native lamented at the time, and the business he'd spent 45 years building wasn't going to sell at a price he needed to retire. A full concept change to make the business more attractive to sell was the only hope.
Despite not owning the space, Tsolis and his brother, Peter, dipped into their savings to hire a professional designer, who spent most of this year gutting and renovating their beloved diner, which was one of Great Neck's oldest establishments. Gone was the dated earth tones scheme; in came minimalist white walls with pops of color from woven baskets and large photos of the Greek seaside. The brothers considered it an investment in the future of their business.
“I’m the crazy one, you know,” Jimmy Tsolis said. “Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do.”
The new concept opened earlier this month as an upscale Greek restaurant named Paros Grille, serving the classics alongside a changing menu of fresh-not-frozen seafood sourced from their longtime supplier, Marine Fishery. (Originally from Corinth, the two have never been to the Greek island Paros, but found the name catchy and easy to pronounce.) There is valet parking in the evenings, and an emphasis on cocktails and imported Greek wines with varietals like Xinomavro and Assyrtiko. So far, business has been steady as word gets out about the new concept, Jimmy Tsolis said.
There have been surprises along the way, from permitting issues to the carbon dioxide meter going off in the boiler room, forcing them to close for a few days. Some longtime regulars miss the old diner items, the Tsolis brothers said, and new entrees like slow-braised lamb shank yiouvetsi with orzo and market price fish are mostly in the $35-$55 range, a significant increase from the diner days. Less-expensive items include a $24 burger and a creamy take on moussaka ($26), which draws on a family recipe.
“That’s how we grew up, eating Greek food, and serving it now makes us feel good,” Peter said. “In particular, Greek food is good. It makes people happy.”
The former diner is tucked into a bustling intersection with three gas stations, and it can be a little tricky getting in and out of the parking lot, despite the valet parking. On a recent Monday evening, the sprawled-out dining room seemed almost too large for the number of customers inside, giving the appearance that the restaurant was empty even as customers began to stream in.
But for Jimmy and Peter, the biggest improvement is the new restaurant's shorter operating hours, which make it easier on them and also save on labor costs. Many of the crew members are the same as the diner days, and had a similar style of friendly casual service.
Now, after it's all finished and Paros is open, Jimmy has reconsidered his idea to sell. He still wants to retire, but now his plan is to gradually hand the restaurant over to his son-in-law, another Greek native, and restaurant industry veteran Dimitri Dourvis. But he still maintains that the future of diners in general is limited.
“The labor is very high with diners. That’s why diners are closing,” Jimmy said. “Food is food. Everybody pays the same. But people think different.”
Paros Grille, 607 Northern Blvd., Great Neck, 516-482-0980. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.