Volume 18 • Issue 23 | October 21 - 27, 2005

Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel

George Koulmentas in his new restaurant. He bought the building in 2002 and two weeks later the city demolished it after discovering a crack. A look at the new building, above right, and the old one on Sept. 28, 2002 just before it was demolished, left.

George’s comes back to Greenwich St.

By Ronda Kaysen

Three years after George’s Restaurant was reduced to a pile of rubble three blocks south of the World Trade Center, it has reopened with a string of red, white and blue pennants stretching from the rooftop of the two-story structure to the streetlight at the corner with lettering on its façade reading “Since 1950.”

“I feel alive. I’m tired, but this is a great tiredness,” said restaurateur George Koulmentas, sitting in his restaurant at the corner of Greenwich and Rector Sts.

George’s Restaurant was demolished by the city in Sept. 2002, hours after a crack was discovered in the building’s wall. Koulmentas had purchased the squat, two-story structure two weeks earlier for $1.6 million after renting it for 22 years. He was unable to salvage anything from inside the restaurant before the wrecking ball arrived.

“Everything was destroyed,” said Koulmentas, a hefty man with silver hair and tinted glasses. George’s had been in New Jersey since 1940 until it moved Downtown 22 years ago. The sign on the new building mistakenly reads “Since 1950,” an error Koulmentas realized after the plaque was in place. He has no plans to fix it.

George’s was one of the first businesses on Greenwich St. south of the World Trade Center to reopen after 9/11. With $15,000 from his insurance company, Koulmentas cleaned the debris from his restaurant and was back in business by October 2001. Business was good for the first few months. A security checkpoint located in front of his doorstep flooded the Greek diner with tourists everyday. After the checkpoint was removed, business slacked.

Customers who worked in the W.T.C. were gone and those who used to order delivery from their office opted to eat out instead because new security measures were too cumbersome. As office buildings began to convert to residential buildings in large numbers, business continued to suffer.

And then came the crack in the wall that led to the demolition. Koulmentas suspects the post-9/11 cleanup effort — with the constant street repairs and demolitions — damaged the integrity of the building, a century-old wooden structure.

The road back to business was a long one for Koulmentas, who emigrated from Greece as a young boy. His insurance company refused to cover the restoration, forcing him to sell his home in Long Island and sink $2 million of his own money into rebuilding the structure. If he had chosen to sell the empty lot, “I’d be in debt for the rest of my life.” Now he is in business with his son Billy.

George’s was bustling on Wednesday afternoon. With florescent lights overhead, rose-colored tablecloths, and prints of Parisian storefronts hanging from the walls, the restaurant has the feel of a typical New York City diner. It serves everything from an egg on a roll to chicken Florentine.

A magenta orchid perched in the windowsill beside where this reporter sat sipping iced tea. The attached note read: “Best of luck in this new venture. Good health and fortune.”

Who gave you the orchid, Downtown Express inquired.

“I don’t know who these people are,” Koulmentas shrugged, glancing at the card to be certain. The restaurant received so many flowers when it first opened three weeks ago that “we looked like a flower shop.”

The goodwill from longtime customers and nearby residents brought him to tears on opening day. “What can I say? I’m a big crybaby.”

One longtime customer gave Koulmentas a framed newspaper article about George’s Restaurant. The man who bestowed the gift sauntered into the restaurant while Koulmentas spoke with this reporter. Thrilled by the coincidence, Koulmentas, a large man with a stooping gate, clapped his hand. “I was just talking about the gift you gave me!” he cheered.

“It was nothing,” the customer mumbled, smiling sheepishly.

Koulmentas commands a cult like fascination from his customers, many of whom flocked to his restaurant the week it reopened. “It was great. There’s no other way to describe it. Same chef, same great food,” said Donald Schroder, a former Battery Place resident, of his first post-restoration meal at George’s. Schroder and his wife moved to Brooklyn six weeks ago, but that didn’t stop them from trekking to George’s last Sunday. “We got really attached to the people who were still there,” he said, adding that after 9/11, George’s took on a certain import as one of the few restaurants open in the area. It became something of a haven for residents living so close to the disaster.

Jim Kruzik, an advertising copywriter for J & R Music World by City Hall ate at George’s the day it reopened. “I don’t even know who the owner is, but it was always one of those places that kind of made you feel at home,” he said. “It was good food for what it is. A good burger, a good omelet.”

The staff shares a similar loyalty. Nearly 60 percent of the employees returned when the restaurant reopened, including the chef. Koulmentas simply called up his old employees and invited them back. Only a few waitresses declined the offer, he said.

The next year and a half will be difficult for neighborhood businesses, said Koulmentas. But he expects the redevelopment will bring new customers—up to 15,000 construction workers a day will toil Downtown during the peak of construction.

Koulmentas already has his eye on more projects. He and his son are hashing out a plan to open a bar near Wall St. in the next eight months. But “first we have to get the restaurant back on its feet,” he said.



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