Athens Grill, a new Mediterranean restaurant on the north edge of Madison in Westport, opened in December 2017 with its farm-to-table menu. The vision to bring delicious and nutritious Mediterranean food to the general populace at affordable prices has culminated in a restaurant that offers a variety of dining options in a new, spacious, freestanding building next to where it all began as Athens Gyros—in a Shell gas station.
Building a restaurant brand before leveraging the business into a brick-and-mortar building is a popular trend. Starting small before opening a full restaurant is a good way to improve the odds of success by growing a loyal customer base. Locating in a gas station provided low start-up costs for Athens Gyros and guaranteed foot traffic as they got started.
The Ladopoulos family had a three-phase master plan when purchasing the Willow Road property in the town of Westport along Highway M, near Highway 113. Phase one was to build apartments and a combined-use building with small business spaces. The intention of phase two was to build a gas station incorporating Athens Gyros and then selling the station to a major gas company in order to build a freestanding Mediterranean restaurant. In 2015, the gas station sold to Kwik Trip Tobacco Outlet Plus, and it was time for phase three. The Ladopoulos family contacted their life-long friend and chef, Andy Ziegler, to become part of the ownership team to continue the brand evolution and move the Athens Grill restaurant plan forward.
Andy met and became friends with Odysseas Ladopoulos in first grade and spent summers with the Ladopoulos family in Greece. They are a second family to him. He has 17 years of restaurant experience, both locally and abroad. While working on his international relations degree, he developed his sense of world cuisine and culture by immersing himself in the lifestyle of Rome, Italy, and Chambery, France, while working in small kitchens. Locally, his culinary experience includes L’Etoile, Cafe Soleil, Kushi Bar Muramoto, The Haze, and helping to open Nostrano on the Square.
Wanting a change, he and his wife moved to Colorado. There he helped open The Laundry restaurant in Steamboat Springs, then settled in as chef for the Steamboat Mountain School. He transitioned the food preparation to from-scratch cooking using local ingredients for this elite private boarding school with a global immersion studies program for competitive skiers and those training for the United States ski team. After starting a sustainable agriculture program, he fundraised to build a campus greenhouse and started a scholarship fund for students pursuing sustainable agriculture after leaving the school.
The restaurant construction was going to take a year, and Andy wanted to keep loyal customers happy by continuing to serve gyros while it was being built. He found a 30-foot, silver-quilted box truck with a full kitchen to serve as the restaurant’s temporary location. The doors of the gas station closed one day, and the next day the food truck opened out back to continue serving core clientele. A greenhouse added in front of the food truck provided seating and warmth during winter up until 10 days before the new restaurant opened. The food truck is now used for offsite catering for private parties and celebrations, as well as for business and community events.
Family and friends gathering over good food in good company for decades is how this restaurant got to where it is today. Andy and the Ladopoulos family wanted to build a restaurant where other people feel comfortable inviting their family and friends to dine together. The restaurant was designed to be a place of gathering with a casual, friendly atmosphere. Building a sense of community and providing a good work culture for the 30-plus employees is equally important to them.
The 3,000-square-foot restaurant feels spacious and inviting due to the high ceilings, yellow walls, and bank of windows that allows natural sunlight to flow into the space. A retractable glass-pane garage door creates a smaller private dining or meeting area at the back of the room. There’s also a patio with table umbrellas.
Athens Grill provides quick-service-style ordering at the counter, and the food is brought to customers in the casual, family-friendly space that can accommodate large groups. Andy credits Sarah Vesley, the restaurant front-of-house manager since the transition, for making sure customers leave the restaurant happy. Traditional food service is served at the bar. The bar features craft cocktails, tap beer, fine wine, whiskey, and imported Greek spirits. Commuters, truckers, and those with a short lunch break take advantage of the drive-through, while boaters and those living nearby often call ahead for carryout.
Jodi is a frequent customer who lives in Cottage Grove and commutes for work between Westport and Middleton. She discovered the eggplant pita, which is her favorite, before the restaurant opened. “They had great food at the food truck, but now they’ve added the atmosphere. It’s a great place for me to enjoy delicious food while I work on my laptop. My husband is from Romania and loves the food. The kids absolutely love the pita bread that I order to go.”
At Athens Grill, they believe everyone deserves to eat affordable, delicious, nourishing food every single day. The Mediterranean comfort food is locally sourced and made from scratch using original recipes. The flavors are rooted in the tradition of Greece and surrounding Mediterranean countries. In addition to gyros, the menu includes burgers, sides, sandwiches, salads, vegetarian selections, and incredible soup. The all-natural gyros are a blend of lamb and beef mixed with Mediterranean spices, without fillers or additives. The gyros’ cones are handcrafted in a USDA facility downstairs in the restaurant. The cones are also sold wholesale to restaurants throughout Wisconsin and the upper Midwest.
As more and more people discover this welcoming restaurant with delicious Mediterranean food, the odds of continued success are high for Athens Grill.
Lauri Lee is a foodie living in Madison.