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Astoria's Kopiaste Taverna Revisits the Neighborhood's Greek Roots

ASTORIA — Three decades ago, George Georgiou owned Taverna Vraka, a popular Greek restaurant and gathering place at 23-15 31st St. in Astoria, where customers would flock each weekend to hear traditional Greek music and eat the food that reminded them of their Mediterranean homes.

"It was the most successful restaurant in those years," said Georgiou, 60. "Everybody would come here. We had lines. We were written up by the Daily News in those years, the Times."

Taverna Vraka closed in 1988 after eight years in business, and Georgiou left Astoria to start restaurants in Manhattan and Long Island. But this winter, he returned to the old neighborhood, opening up another authentic Greek restaurant in the exact same spot, though this time under a new name — Kopiaste Taverna.

"It’s the same idea from 1980, but more casual now," Georgiou, adding that "Kopiaste" means "Welcome," in Greek.

It's not just the atmosphere that's changed since Georgiou last made a play on the Astoria food scene. Over the last several years, the traditionally Greek enclave has seen an influx of diverse newcomers, both in terms of restaurants and residents.

"It's a different crowd now. The area changed a lot, the whole of Astoria changed a lot," he said. "Now we have a lot of restaurants, not only Greek. Now you have Thai, you have Chinese, you have Filipino. We have cafes that we didn’t have in those years."

Kopiaste Taverna, however, is distinctly Greek: its walls are adorned with photographs of the old country, white columns flank the stairs that lead to the entrance, and Greek musicians perform live every Friday and Saturday nights.

Georgiou and his business partner, chef Skevi Rousopoulos, both hail from the Greek island of Cyprus, and their menu is inspired by that region.

They offer standard Greek classics, like moussaka — a layered dish of eggplant, potatoes, zucchini and ground beef topped with béchamel sauce — seafood dishes like whole Mediterranean sea bass and grilled baby octopus, plus plenty of olives and feta cheese.

Customers can sample a special menu of Cyprus meze, the Greek version of tapas, where $22 a person gets you a taste of 17 different dishes,  among them koupepia — vine leaves stuffed with ground pork and rice — and grilled Cypriot sausages made from pork, onions and parsley.

“It’s like Mediterranean small plates," Georgiou said.

Since opening in December, Kopiaste Taverna has drawn a crowd of both old and new Astoria residents, Georgiou said, noting that some other changes have taken place in the neighborhood since his last restaurant here.

"A lot of people, they don’t eat meat anymore. No animals at all," he said, saying he's added a number of strictly-vegetarian dishes to the menu as a result.

"Thirty or 40 years ago, people were vegetarians, but they ate fish at least," he said. "Now they don’t even eat fish."