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A Greek tragedy in Charleston

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Rachel Coffman, Erin Maradei and Allie Bodnar gathered in the Charleston Town Center Mall's food court for one last meal together at a favorite restaurant.

Coffman, a lifelong resident of the Charleston area, introduced Bodnar to Best of Crete. Bodnar, in turn, brought Maradei for her first meal. The three ate at the restaurant regularly.

"I've been eating here since I was 10," Coffman said. "On field trips, all the kids would go to Taco Bell. I'd be the one lonely kid at the Best of Crete."

"I eat here once or twice a week," Maradei said. "And if I'm in the mall for dinner, that's what I eat for dinner."

She'll have to find something else for now. After nearly 30 years in the Charleston Town Center, the Greek eatery closed Thursday.

"It's just time," co-owner Mike Birurakis said. "This is a very grueling business. My mom and brother put in 20 years. I've got 20 years."

He said the business was financially stable, but the restaurant's lease was up in the mall, making it a good time to close.

Birurakis' mother, Joann, and sons Steve and Greg started the business when the mall opened in 1983. Mike Birurakis joined the business later.

Town Center spokeswoman Lisa McCracken said she's sad to see the mall's only locally owned ethnic restaurant close.

"We're certainly very sad to see their departure from Charleston Town Center," McCracken said. "We wish Joann and Mike and the whole family all the best. They're great people that create a great dining experience, and we will all miss them."

A line of customers backed up from the restaurant to the mall's escalator during lunchtime Thursday as patrons came for their last Best of Crete meals.

Philip Walden of Charleston said he came to the restaurant two to four times a week. He came for the good food and also because of his friendship with Mike Birurakis.

"It's a bummer," Walden said. "I wish it wasn't closing."

Many customers had been by the restaurant lately to say hello and thanks, Mike Birurakis said.

"We've made a lot of friends over the last 30 years," he said. "and we appreciate the support we got since we announced [the closure]."

Birurakis said he told his six employees about the business closing at the beginning of February. Laying off workers was the most difficult part of closing, he said. The employees who have sought work, though, now have jobs waiting for them, he said.

"We thank the employees for the help," he said. "We've touched three generations, and we appreciate all the help."

Jeff Pierson and Tyler Evert were two who came for one last meal at the restaurant.

"My wife and I come were about once a week," Pierson said. "My daughter, Sylvia, is 21/2. The first meat she had was lamb from here."

When Evert worked at Sears in the Town Center, "I would come here pretty much every day," he said. Since he's had children, whose tastes are more suited to other foods, he's visited less often.

"I think it's sad that everything's getting replaced by more commercial chains," he said.

Birurakis said he's toying with the idea of opening a new restaurant, but first he wants to take a break -- from his catering business, too.

"I'm going to take a few months and gather myself," he said. "I'm good for my word, and I'm not going to say I'm going to open a restaurant until I'm sure, because it's a big commitment."

His loyal customers, Maradei included, seem ready to follow if he opens a new place.

"If they reopen in the East End, in the West Side, we'll go," she said. "It doesn't matter where."

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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