Edmonton is home to a Greek restaurant dynasty.
With the opening of his first Edmonton restaurant in 1981, Cyprus-born Yianni Psalios established a dining legacy that endures to this day. His most recent venture, Yianni’s Backyard, opened at the end of 2013 just off Calgary Trail on 55 Avenue. It marks the latest in his succession of Greek restaurants, which have charted the ups and downs of Edmonton’s economy over the past three and a half decades.
“After so many years, you try to scale back a little bit,” says Psalios, sitting on the brand-new patio at Yianni’s Backyard. It truly looks like something imported straight from southern Greece: whitewashed walls with brilliant green foliage planted all around, baskets of bright flowers hanging from the pergola overhead. “We try to keep it more natural and more like back home,” he says. “I like my customers, when they walk in, to think they are somewhere else.”
Soon after opening his first restaurant in the Lendrum neighbourhood, Psalios opened another on Whyte Avenue, and then another a few blocks away. The Whyte Avenue location is still in operation, though Psalios sold it some years ago. The ’90s saw him opening the first Koutouki on 124 Street downtown, which is currently being run by his daughter and son-in-law. At one point, Psalios notes that he had as many as five restaurants in operation at the same time.
But he hadn’t always intended to become a restaurateur, or at least not directly. During his early years in Cyprus, Psalios worked first as a busboy in the hospitality industry where he gleaned a bit of kitchen knowledge; he learned more through attending hospitality school and then working on a series of passenger ships in the early ’70s. In 1974 he considered returning home, but the Turkish invasion of Cyprus caused him to change course to Vancouver; three months later he opened a Greek restaurant, Kypriaki Taverna, which is still there today.
Things might have gone very differently had Psalios not visited Edmonton by chance in 1980.
“I came for three days and I met my wife,” he says. “She’s from here; she’s Greek origin but she’s born here. And instead of three days, it has been 35 years.”
Stretching along one entire wall of Yianni’s Backyard, underneath the trailing vines and twinkling lights strung from the ceiling, are a series of photographs. A closer looks reveals snapshots of Edmonton notables: a picture of Psalios beside Wayne Gretzky and the Stanley Cup is immediately recognizable, even to those who aren’t hockey fans.
“The first one to come in was Dave Semenko,” Psalios recalls of the Oilers. “And then Kevin Lowe, and he brought the other crew one-by-one. All of us were young punks at the time, young guys.
“That was the heydays, in the ’80s—it was the place to be,” he continues, going on to describe that at the time, Whyte Avenue was rather rundown and nowhere near the increasingly gentrified hot spot it is today. “They liked the food; they liked the atmosphere. I was there when they were winning, when they were losing. All of us were the same age at the same time, and we became friends—they still come here and visit us, and actually we have their kids coming in now, too.”
Over the course of his 30-plus years running Edmonton restaurants, Psalios has seen a lot of change in the local climate. It’s fitting that he’s talking about all this on a patio, as the original Whyte Avenue location was one of the first Edmonton restaurants to build a patio once legislation was altered to permit them.
Not all of the changes in Edmonton’s dining landscape were positive, however.
“At that time it was all owners-operators—Italians, Greeks, all the nationalities,” Psalios says. “Now it has become all franchises—there’s not too many independent restaurants around, period. That’s what worries me: when people forget about the real food and the real service and the real places. We want our customers, when they come here, to be a person, not a number.”
Ultimately, Psalios credits his enduring success with a simple philosophy of providing high-quality Greek cuisine in a warm atmosphere.
“It’s very classic, very traditional,” he says. “We make it from scratch, nothing from a package, all healthy.”
He even imports fresh Greek seafood once a week, notably seabream —which probably isn’t found anywhere else in town. “It’s a little bit more expensive, but it’s worth it,” he assures.
While his history might suggest that another new restaurant is just around the corner, Psalios notes that for the time being, he’s happy with the way things are.
“My passion is to create an environment that you don’t see anywhere,” he says. “For this province, for this city, for this climate—even to create something for a short time, like two, three months; me and my customers, to just sit outside and enjoy it.”
5524 Calgary Trail