Sara Butler | Editor
Greek Festival showcases ‘labor of love’ in Uptown
Walking into the Saint Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church on a spring Tuesday morning is a sight to behold.
For two months, a huge group of people has filled the church’s main hall once a week to diligently handmake trays of baklava and other pastries. Their efforts are for San Diego’s Original Greek Festival, an annual event held by the church to promote Greek culture and bring the community together.
The 2018 festival, which will be held on June 8–10, is celebrating its 49th year. Its roots began at the Scottish Rite Center in Mission Valley. Shortly after its start, the event outgrew the space and moved to Uptown. This year, the festival has expanded further — having secured the nearby parking lot to add more tents and mitigate the crowds.
Maria Platis, involved with the church and festival for years, said that the weekend is intended to spread awareness of the Greek church and heritage to the neighborhood.
“I think [starting the event] was a lot of desire to share the culture — our culture — with San Diego,” Platis said. “And it’s our major fundraiser. A lot [of the money raised] goes back into the church and a lot goes back into the community with the different projects we do.”
Katherine Stewart is a member of the church and has been participating in the festival since it began in 1969, just two years after she moved to San Diego from Greece.
“We do nice church tours and people get to know a little bit more about the customs, and we have the dancing, which is very important,” Stewart said. “We just try to bring all the culture — the food, the culture and the customs — together. That’s the whole idea.
“Because all minorities are important, right? All the races are important. We want to be part of America and we like it,” she continued. “I think that’s why the Greeks have been so successful in this country, because they were able to assimilate but to keep part of their customs and their culture without imposing it on anyone else — we want to expose it.”
The nearly five decade-old celebration takes place right outside of the 90-year-old church, located at 3655 Park Blvd. The site is in the heart of Uptown and sits between three neighborhoods: Hillcrest, University Heights and North Park.
Platis estimates 12,000 to 14,000 people attend every year — most are locals, but some travel down from other cities.
“I even had a family once that came because they saw us on TV and they were out here on vacation — a family on vacation from Ohio; they came and it was cute,” Platis said, smiling.
The event is full of festivities, ranging from music to dance to drink, but one of the biggest draws is the food. Greek dishes and pastries are handmade by community members and sold throughout the weekend. Many of the local cooks use old recipes handed down through generations.
The menu is extensive — the complete listing can be found online — but a few of the items include gyros, féta fries, and saganáki, which consists of flaming Greek cheese served with pita bread. Food is served a la carte in the church’s dining room. Meals are also offered outdoors at various Greek Food stations, which can be brought into the beer garden.
“Of course, the people like the food because it’s all authentic and it is ‘a labor of labor,’ I call it,” Stewart said. “Almost everyone tells us about the food, because we supposedly make the best food. You have to come and try it.”
A new element at the long-time event is a pre-order pastry service. People hoping to get a taste of the handmade goodies without the crowds or long lines can order desserts online and pick up at the festival. These include koulourákia, baklavá, melomakárona, kataífi, and kourambiéthes; the items are also available in a variety pack.
Additionally, there is a beer garden in the church parking lot, as well as the Oracle Wine Lounge in front of the church. The beer garden is the hub of socialization full of lively music and dancing. Oracle Wine Lounge is a small space with a quieter, relaxing atmosphere that serves a large selection of Greek wines imported just for the festival, provided by long-time distributors.
Four bands will perform Greek music on the main stage in the beer garden, and the Oracle Wine Lounge will alternate local musicians all weekend. The headliners — coined The Olympians — travel down from Los Angeles and have participated in the event for 40 years.
“They’re the main draw for all the dancing,” Platis said.
Dancing is another tradition of the event. The church is home to a dance school and its director coordinates the event performances. Children as young as 5 years old dance at the festival. For attendees unfamiliar with Greek dancing, mid-day lessons will be provided by the school.
Families are encouraged to attend the all-ages festival. Though the little ones can’t go into the beer garden or Oracle Wine Lounge, there is a Kids’ Fun Zone. Parents can grab a drink and drop them off in a safe, supervised environment. Older children connected to the church lend a hand in managing this Kids’ Zone, as well as provide help with other tasks throughout the weekend.
“The children get involved, they help where they can,” Platis said. “They’re little helpers to help in the Kids Zone and get you more water. They can get involved, and those are good memories to have. As time goes on and you’re older you fondly remember those times, and maybe it helps keep you involved.”
General admission is a $3 donation, which goes directly to the church. There is also free admission on Friday night, as well as 11 a.m.–1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, as “a nice gesture to the community.” Additionally, children under 12, active military and first responders receive free admission all weekend long.
In typical Uptown fashion, parking in the church’s neighborhood is tough. There is free parking provided at San Diego Unified School District Offices, located at 4301 Campus Ave. off of Normal Street. A complimentary shuttle service will transport visitors to the heart of the action back and forth on all three days.
Two hundred locals fill 850 three-hour volunteer shifts throughout the weekend. Platis noted that every member of the church looks forward to the event in an effort to share their culture and connect with the Uptown neighborhoods and overall San Diego region.
“We take a lot of pride in [the festival],” Platis said. “There’s a lot of pride in presenting our best, making our best [and] being hospitable. It’s a time when we can all get together and make new friendships without church, bring the young people up to start learning this and start helping. It’s a tradition that spans the generations.”
San Diego’s Original Greek Festival returns to Uptown on June 8–10, from 5–11 p.m. on Friday, 11 a.m.–10 p.m. on Saturday, and 11 a.m.–8 p.m. on Sunday. For a festival flyer, map and more information, visit sdgreekfestival.com.
—Reach Sara Butler at email@example.com.