BURLINGTON, Vt. -- There was steam on the windows. Outside, the town was in the grip of a freeze. It was time for a break, and this looked like a good place to thaw out. It was all red and chrome, a meatloaf-shaped building on a side street off Burlington's main drag. A neon sign said "Oasis," and that's exactly what it was.
The Formica counter was warm to the touch. Behind me were seven booths laid out like compartments on a train, each with its own passengers: some lone ones reading newspapers, others sipping coffee with chums. Before me was a blackened grill that had seen years of pancake flipping, plus a framed photograph of three smiling men: Howard Dean, Bill Clinton, and a third -- who was neither a former Vermont governor nor a former president -- in a tent-shaped hat.
The menu offered the usual: egg salad sandwiches, hot dogs, burgers, and fries. But a word at the bottom caught my eye: Greek omelet, Greek salad.
"It comes with my grandmother's oil and vinegar dressing," said David Lines, a dark-haired fellow in his 20s.
So the place was Greek. I would never have guessed, though I soon learned that the Oasis was one of many restaurants around Burlington that suppress their Greekness behind a mask of Americana. I wondered why. On a bleak winter day, nothing seemed more appealing than a whiff of the Greek Isles, a land synonymous with sun, sand, and vacation.
Lines and his brother Jon started running the Oasis in 1997, when their father, Stratton Lines -- the third man in the photo -- retired. Stratton's parents emigrated from Sparta via Ellis Island. When this Mountain View diner car migrated to Burlington in 1953 from its New Jersey factory, a legacy was in the making. David and Jon are the third generation to run the Burlington landmark; eventually, it seems, everyone passes through.
So why the stinginess with Greek food? David says they occasionally whip up a batch of spanakopita, that savory spinach and feta pie wrapped in paper-thin phyllo dough, but why ditch a menu that has worked for 50 years?
"This is what we've always known," he said, "so this is what we do."
The Parkway Diner in South Burlington is less timid. When I got there, owner George Alvanos was greeting customers in his thick Greek accent. Potent Greek symbols were visible in every corner of this otherwise typically American lunch joint: drachmas on a plaque, the blue and white national flag, and pictures of harbors and fishing boats.
An Athens native, Alvanos has been in Vermont since 1980. In 1997 he bought this vintage Worcester diner. He serves the usual fare, but plenty of Greek food, too: homemade spanakopita, moussaka, pastitsio, bean soup, and lemon chicken baked with garlic. His wife, Christine, works here, he told me, and the head chef is his son, Evan.
"Well, his real name is Evangelos."
All seven booths were full, so I took a stool at the counter and watched the melee. Waitresses reached and scurried, dishes clattered, the place buzzed with life. Alvanos worked the register, reminding me of the scene in "Never On Sunday" when the taverna owner blithely watches as his customers smash plates, punching the register ka-ching ka-ching after each crash.
Another Athenian operates an eatery just 11 miles west on Route 116 in Hinesburg. Papa Nick's is a 23-table family restaurant with a spacious parking lot that is usually full. The "Nick" is Nikos Zontanos, who opened it with his wife, Voula, in 1991. They came over separately from Greece and met at the Lincoln Inn, a restaurant run for many years by Nick's uncle, Tom Kourebanas. Twenty years later they struck out on their own, offering mainstream American dishes to play it safe.
"People like the Greek food, but not every day. It's not going to be enough income, only the Greek food. But we always have souvlaki, spanakopita, and baklava," Voula Zontanos consoled me. "And once a week for one night," Papa Nick's goes Greek.
That's when the comfort food takes on Aegean flavors, including varieties of roast lamb. As for Kourebanas, he retired last fall and sold the Lincoln Inn to two non-Greeks, brothers Alex and Bob McEwing. The inn has two dining rooms, one diner-like and the other more upscale, and they are holding on to the Greek dishes. My favorite is the Kadaifi shrimp, which is jumbo shrimp, marinated in egg and milk, wrapped in shredded phyllo dough, and fried golden brown. Another is kleftiko, which is lamb or salmon marinated in feta and olive oil, then folded inside phyllo dough and baked.
Though not associated in any commercial way, these families are united by a Greek Orthodox church in town, Dormition of the Mother of God, which holds services in Greek and English. And if their Greekness goes undercover most of the year, it comes out on the last weekend in July at the annual Greek Festival, when the churchyard morphs into a taverna. Tents go up, a dance floor is laid down, and the public queues for souvlaki, Greek salad, roasted potatoes, and rivers of retsina. A whole corner is devoted to desserts made in local Greek homes. Children parade in Greek costume, the bouzouki music blares, and Greek dancing stretches into the wee hours.
Then, for another year, it's back to Vermont, which couldn't be farther removed from dolphins and fishnets. So I was buoyed the other day when I wandered into Henry's Diner and learned it had gone Greek. William and Naomi Maglaris have just purchased the green stucco building down the street from the Oasis. The family has run restaurants for three generations; Bill wouldn't think of doing anything else, Naomi told me: "He has it in his blood."
There won't be big changes in the menu, she confessed, but they do offer lamb gyro with tsatsiki and Greek salads. I found something to order. Then, silently, I applauded.
Diane E. Foulds is a freelance writer in Burlington, Vt.