The 1997 opening of Cosmos Café in uptown Charlotte wasn't the usual restaurant gamble.
In a city where many neighborhoods were fed with generous portions of home-style cooking, steaks and barbecue, Cosmos ventured into uncharted territory.
Its menu focused on small plates of food called tapas and recipes from all over the world – “the cosmos” in Greek. Cosmos also was among the first restaurants inside Interstate 277 to offer sushi, said managing partner Gus Georgoulias.
At that time, the restaurant's location at Sixth and North College streets also was off the map for restaurants. It sat at the far edge of the city's business core.
Inside, the décor was as playful as the menu, with a rainbow of paint colors, a circular bar and an open kitchen.
Most in the restaurant business shied away from concepts that hadn't been tried before. The industry's casualty rate is far too high for that kind of risk.
Yet the fact that the concept hadn't been tried is what made it appealing for Cosmos' owners, five friends who all had stints in large or small Charlotte restaurant kitchens.
“It was very unique and original,” said managing partner Gus Georgoulias, who came to the United States from Greece in 1976. “Anything that has its own authenticity will survive.”
In November, Georgoulias, his brother George Yeorgoulias and their three partners at Cosmos celebrated 12 years in uptown. The other partners are Andy Kastanas and Tom Tsilimos and George Stergiou.
Theirs still is not an easy job. The area now has more than 120 restaurants and more than 50 nightspots vying for the same regulars, commuters, conventioneers and visitors, bar-hoppers and crowds following events at Time Warner Cable Arena.
Yet, not only has Cosmos survived, it has spurred two other uptown businesses by the same group – nightspots Alley Cat next door and The Forum upstairs. A second, 240-seat Cosmos opened in Ballantyne in May and already serves thousands each week, Georgoulias said
Looking back, some say the 240-seat Cosmos helped center city dining evolve from the safer models.
“Cosmos Café was a real pioneer,” said Michael Smith, president and CEO of Center City Partners. “It brought a very contemporary entertainment and dining option to center city. You've got to have entrepreneurs like that to show what the city is capable of doing.”
Thousands still fill seats at the original location each week for lunch, dinner and nightlife that continues until 2 a.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays nights.
Diners can choose from more than 50 items, including tapas such as grilled Spanish octopus, chicken satay or Greek beef kabobs.
There are also sandwiches such as Moroccan mini-lamb burgers, salads and entrees of pasta, seafood, steaks and pizza from a wood-burning oven.
Dinner prices range from about $8 to $11 for tapas and about $16-22 for entrees such as sea scallops, braised lamb shanks or beef bourguignon.
What has helped the restaurant maintain its appeal, Georgoulias said, is a kitchen staff capable of executing the menu to exacting standards and a lighthearted and relaxed atmosphere.
After 12 years, there's also been some maturity. But that doesn't mean Cosmos is slowing down.
“We have to operate under the page of creativity,” Georgoulias said. “It's about tomorrow. It's not about yesterday.”