A family-owned Greek eatery nestled near the waters of idyllic Campbells Bay Beach has officially been crowned the best BYO in Tāmaki Makaurau.
Blink and you might miss it, the small, unpretentious El Greco is situated off the beaten track in a humble brick build between a dairy and label industry consultants. But keep walking along the esplanade and you'll arrive at picturesque Campbells Bay, a scenic stretch of seashore connected by a coastal pipeline to the beaches of East Coast Bays.
The hidden gem was shortlisted alongside 11 other restaurants as part of the inaugural Best BYO Awards, a competition endeavouring to highlight the often overlooked venues that bring vibrancy to Auckland's culinary scene. Facebook food forum Lazy Susan and Leftfield Wines teamed up to find the establishment that ticked all the boxes: delicious food, an inviting atmosphere and most importantly, bring-your-own booze.
While El Greco has established a loyal customer base as a local favourite in Auckland's North Shore, it remains somewhat of a hidden gem for Aucklanders not privy to the northern hotspots.
The eatery's "flavoursome" Greek-Italian fare, "warm and relaxing" atmosphere and "exceptional" service impressed the panel of four judges, who scored the venue highly. It also received the most public votes, securing the restaurant a small business support package worth $5000 - as well as the bragging rights of being crowned Auckland's best BYO.
El Greco is owned and operated by husband-and-wife duo Kostas and Sarah Grigorakis, who have come to be regarded as local legends for their work in the community. The couple, who were praised by the judges for their infectious energy and warm, welcoming demeanour, have been known to use their platform to provide free meals to people in need in the surrounding areas.
But the last few years haven't been easy for the tight-knit team. Alongside the hardships posed by the ongoing pandemic, a fire at the restaurant damaged much of the property in 2020. However, the couple were eventually able to restore El Greco to its former glory.
Sarah said the team is humbled by the accolade, and is grateful for the welcome boost following the financial challenges the hospitality industry has faced throughout the pandemic.
"As with a lot of hospitality venues, it's been quite a challenging time. It is perfect timing to receive such a welcome boost. We'll be using the money to invest in training our staff and upgrading some of our systems," Sarah said.
"We didn't know that we had even been put forward before we learned that we were finalists. It was really exciting to find out we'd won. We're elated… It means so much to us and we can't wait to bring our little piece of the Mediterranean to you all."
Anna King Shahab, a judge and the co-founder of Lazy Susan, acknowledged that while picking one winner was incredibly difficult, the panel couldn't look past El Greco's colourful characters, delicious Mediterranean menu and beachside location.
"Our experience at El Greco matched the public sentiment. At risk of calling on a cliché, this haven of Greek and wider Mediterranean cuisine is a hidden gem. Tucked away right near the beach at Campbells Bay, it feels a little like a holiday in a meal," Shahab said.
"El Greco made a wonderful impression with its warm, attentive and clued-up service. Its vibrantly presented and flavoursome food was served in generous portions, and it generally exuded a feeling of heartfelt hospitality.
"El Greco stood out as a great example of a BYO restaurant on every level - a place we'd rush back to and do it all again."
After several years of serving up authentic Greek-Italian fare, El Greco has established a reputation as a local favourite in the northern suburbs, renowned for its meze platters, pizzas, pastas, gyros and the energetic couple at the helm who know the neighbourhood residents by name.
Kostas, a self-taught chef who learned traditional Greek recipes from his mother, is a hospitality veteran who has run successful venues in Athens and his home island of Crete. The restaurant is firmly centred on family values, with photos on the wall comprising portraits of Kostas' family and home village. Meanwhile, the bright, homely and welcoming décor aims to transport patrons to the islands of the Mediterranean.
"One of the best parts of running El Greco is when customers come in and run into someone they haven't seen for ages so they join tables," Sarah continued.
"That's so cool because people feel like they're at home. They want to share the experience with others. That's what we strive for."
The other finalists for the 2022 Auckland's Best BYO Awards were Bali Nights (Grey Lynn), Big Fish Eatery (Penrose), Bunga Raya Restaurant (New Lynn), Canton Café (Kingsland), Faro (Auckland CBD), Golden Jade (Epsom), Nishiki (Freeman's Bay), Satya (Grey Lynn), Sri Pinang (Kārangahape Road), Tianze Dumpling House (Sandringham) and Try it Out Restaurant (Ōtāhuhu).