Long time festival goers and others who came for the first time on Friday kicked off the weekend celebration of Greek food and culture at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Valencia Street. The three-day festival, in its 66th year, aims to bring together the Greek community, “while offering a window into Greek culture to outsiders,” said organizer Deno Konstantinidis.

Although the festival at 245 Valencia St. has been held for six decades, its importance grew in the aftermath the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which destroyed the cathedral – one of the main centers for the San Francisco Greek community. “What we decided then, was to rebuild not the big cathedral first, but the gymnasium, so we can actually have functions here,” said Konstantinidis.

The money connected from the gym’s use is financing the rebuilding of the cathedral, which officials said they plan to open in 2017, 28 years after the earthquake destroyed the old church.

As 80-year-old Lula Ossipoff went from table to table in the main hall asking visitors if they wanted to buy a $5 raffle ticket, she stopped to chat with some who she has known for years. “I’ve been coming here all my life, that shows how important this place is to me,” she said.

Ossipoff was baptized and married in the old church, which was built in 1921. Her daughters too. Her youngest, she said, had her wedding at the cathedral one week before the devastating event. It was the last wedding held there and Ossipoff looks forward to seeing it reopen next year.

For the moment, she said, she was enjoying showing people what the Greek community has to offer. “We probably make the best Greek food in the area.”

Two festival early birds agreed. “It’s low pressured and very good and cheap food,” said Kris Cere, 28. He and a friend, were visiting San Francisco from Boston and happened to stumble upon the festival online. Cere said that it’s not just the food that makes the event great. “The people here are amazing. It’s an amazing hyperlocal community that you won’t expect until you get here.”

Kris Cere (left) and Jake Hiller visiting the Greek Food Festival from Boston Photo by Serginho Roosblad

Kris Cere (left) and Jake Hiller visiting the Greek Food Festival from Boston
Photo by Serginho Roosblad

Still, the backbone of the festival is the Greek food and displaying the diversity of the kitchen. According to organizer Konstantinidis, it is the “yayas” or grannies, who make the festival what it is. “They’ve been doing this for many years and we got a ton of stuff here. A lot of Greek festivals don’t have what we do,” he said.

“It’s made with a lot of love and passion,” said 84-year-old Mary Mitchel one of the yaya’s in charge of food that included moussaka which is baked eggplants with meat filling, pastitsio, a layered ground beef and pasta dish and many people’s favorite: gyros with tzatziki.

Vicky Moulas, 75, added, “We also like to impress the people,”

The cooks said  it takes about three weeks to prepare for the festival and they’ll be working around the clock the whole weekend. “Some people are coming here every year, just for the food,” said Moulas.

“And when it’s all over, we’re going to start preparing for Christmas.”

The Greek Food Festival  at 245 Valencia St. is open Saturday and Sunday from 12pm to 10 pm.