Greek eats: Where to eat, drink and shop in Oakleigh, Melbourne

Sweet Greek owner Kathy Tsaples shopping at Oakleigh Gourmet Deli.
Sweet Greek owner Kathy Tsaples shopping at Oakleigh Gourmet Deli. Photo: Sofia Levin

Kathy Tsaples is a legend of Melbourne's thriving Greek scene. Here is her guide to the best of its heartland, Oakleigh.

Oakleigh is Melbourne's Greek heart and it beats with family-run cafes, restaurants and delis.

But it wasn't always the Greek epicentre of Melbourne. After World War II, Greek migrants gathered at cafes and community clubs on Lonsdale Street in the city, but as rents increased, this hub shifted 14 kilometres south-east to Oakleigh.

The cake display at Vanilla restaurant in Oakleigh.
The cake display at Vanilla restaurant in Oakleigh. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui

Kathy Tsaples, owner of Sweet Greek at the Prahran Market, remembers Lonsdale Street in its heyday, but she adores Oakleigh now and makes regular produce pilgrimages there.

We're sipping coffee at Vanilla Lounge in Oakleigh's buzzing al fresco dining pedestrian strip that in the evenings is filled with the beckoning aromas of grilling meats. From seats by the window, we can see men huddling around tables outside, rugged in jackets, smoking cigarettes and sipping frappes, despite the chill.

"All villages in Greece have the little local coffee shop called a kafenio. People play backgammon and cards, they socialise and talk about politics," says Tsaples. "Here, you feel like you're in Greece. That's why people come."

Behind the places I love are also really good people. They know you, they know what you like and they become part of your family.

Kathy Tsaples

The competition, Nikos Cakes, is just 100 metres down Eaton Mall; Tsaples, who was born and raised in Richmond after her parents migrated from Thessalia, insists we visit both.

A plate of melomakarona (honey cookies), kourabiedes (moon-shaped shortbread) and baklava materialises as we sit down. We also share slices of spanakopita (filo pastry filled with spinach and ricotta) and bouncy tyropita (feta and ricotta) and she tells me she ordered her son's wedding cake here.

Continuing her family legacy through food is important to her, but it wasn't until she was diagnosed with advanced stage-three breast cancer that Tsaples began documenting recipes for her sons.

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She wrote Sweet Greek: Simple Food & Sumptuous Feasts from hand-written notes in the chemotherapy chair. Sweet Greek Life: My Shared Table followed a few years later, and there's another cookbook in the works.

"There was literally no hope for me medically, so the fact that I'm here is a miracle," she says. "On my good days at home I would experiment. I would cook all day and re-energise myself and dream."

Around 2010, restaurateur George Christopoulos from the European Group opened a small shop selling spanakopita in Prahran Market. Along with Tsaples' university buddy, interior designer Kathy Demos, he took Tsaples through.

Marinated olives and octopus as part of a Greek feast at Mythos in Oakleigh.
Marinated olives and octopus as part of a Greek feast at Mythos in Oakleigh. Photo: Sofia Levin

She started training Christopoulos' chefs, and after a year he told her it was time to take it over. 

"That's how they massaged me gently into this," says Tsaples. "The passion was there, the desire was there ... but I was so scared of failing. It wasn't about money for me, the mission was introducing people to Greek cuisine as I knew it, but I wasn't sure if they'd like it."

Sweet Greek has gone from four walls and a couple of fridges to a food store and deli with overflowing displays of traditional dishes.

Tsaples outside The Squirrel's Den.
Tsaples outside The Squirrel's Den. Photo: Sofia Levin

Tsaples calls it a "cultural destination", where you can buy soups, salads or a wedge of her mum's patsara polenta and spinach tart to heat up for lunch, or take home slow-roasted lamb shoulder. 

Now aged 63 with grandchildren, Tsaples fondly recalls her Saturday excursions to Oakleigh with her mother as she leads me to The Squirrel's Den, a narrow store with sacks of legumes at its centre. When Oakleigh Market is open she also visits Oakleigh Market Nutshoppe.

"(The Squirrel's Den) is one of my little hideaways I like to come to. It reminds me of home, it reminds me of my mum, it reminds me of the things I grew up with," she says. 

Tsaples points out Cretan specialties: thyme honey, Flokos-brand whole squid in brine that she'll eat with olive oil and lemon, and salted pumpkin seeds she'd nibble at the Greek cinema.

Paragon Meats is next door. An old photograph of the original shop in Collingwood takes pride of place on the wall. Tsaples buys her meats for Greek Easter here. She chats to the next generation owners, sharing stories about their father, before buying loukanika sausages for her grandson.

As we enter Oakleigh Central, Tsaples points out Oakleigh Gourmet Deli (she also frequents Athena Delicatessen in Oakleigh Market). The deli is smaller than it used to be, but the quality remains.

She makes a beeline for the freezer, where she praises the snap-frozen artichoke, okra and fasolada bean soup mix.

There are half-a-dozen varieties of feta (Tsaples always keeps a bucket of the EPIROS brand), a huge range of vegan cheese for fasting, whole smoked herring that her dad would eat every Saturday and tins of cod roe ("tarama caviar") for taramasalata. 

"I used to stand out the front of Sweet Greek with a container and biscuits and beg people to try white tarama. I'd tell them it's the pink stuff you get at the supermarket. Now we get a queue for it.".

I ask how she feels about whipped cod roe being a menu mainstay at trendy wine bars.

"Do you know how many chefs have come to the shop and taken my tarama?" she asks, raising an eyebrow. "I've been making it my entire life."

We head back up Eaton Mall and pass Meat Me, Tsaples' favourite spot for gyros. She orders chicken but avoids adding chips because of the carbs, which she admits sounds ridiculous.

We're on the way to Mythos for lunch, but not before bumping into a couple of people along Eaton Mall ("This is what happens in Oakleigh!").

Mythos is split into two restaurants opposite each other. One is the original grill and gyros bar, but we sit down for seafood on the other side of Eaton Mall.

Owner George Karakousis is explaining how his cousin looks after their 1200 olive trees in Messina that make the oil I'm eating when the fishmonger arrives. He's pushing a shopping trolley stacked with three boxes of fresh calamari. Tsaples is overjoyed and plunges her hands into the inky critters.

Beautiful fresh squid entering Mythos restaurant in Oakleigh and being admired by Kathy Tsaples.

A delivery of fresh squid at Mythos restaurant. Photo: Sofia Levin

Soon our table fills with grilled octopus, saganaki and prawns bubbling in cast iron and a seasonal special of lightly fried whole barbounia (red mullet).

At this time of year, Karakousis buys foraged greens for horta (boiled and drowned in olive oil and lemon juice) from Greek pensioners. It might be wild chicory, dandelion, amaranth, purslane or mustard greens – all $10 per reusable shopping bag.

We come full circle as cakes are walked over from Vanilla Lounge. Tsaples takes a sip of her thick Greek coffee and sighs.

"Behind the places I love are also really good people. They know you, they know what you like and they become part of your family," she says. "What else do you need?"

Vanilla Lounge, 17-21 Eaton Mall, Oakleigh

Nikos Cakes, 25 Portman Street, Oakleigh

The Squirrel's Den, 40 Portman Street, Oakleigh

Oakleigh Market Nutshoppe, Oakleigh Market, 16 Chester Street, Oakleigh

Paragon Meats ,42 Portman Street, Oakleigh

Oakleigh Gourmet Deli, Oakleigh Central, 39 Hanover Street, Oakleigh

Athena Delicatessen, Oakleigh Market, 12 Chester Street, Oakleigh

Meat Me, 24 Eaton Mall, Oakleigh

Mythos, 15 Eaton Mall, Oakleigh