Mehmet and Isabel Akpinar, owners of the Greek restaurant Zorba's in western Henrico County, might consider Richmond their personal City of Love.
"I fell in love with Richmond as soon as I arrived, and I fell in love with Mehmet soon after," says Isabel, head chef at Zorba's, which was closed for a year after a devastating fire in early 2011. "Richmond is also where I fell in love with cooking for the first time."
Both Mehmet and Isabel moved to the United States in the early '90s — Mehmet from Turkey and Isabel from Costa Rica — and they met in an English as a second language course offered by the city of Richmond. Isabel had moved here to learn English and stay with her eldest sister, Juny Mendez, who was studying recreation, parks and tourism at Virginia Commonwealth University. After spending some time in the kitchen at The Trolley (where Six Burner is now), Isabel chose to pursue her love for cooking full time, and she eventually followed Trolley owner Mike Frangos to his Greek endeavor, Zorba's, in 1993.
Mehmet's first step on U.S. soil had been in Richmond years earlier, while he was still a captain in the Turkish Merchant Marines. "I remember seeing the city towers and the blinking lights for the first time," he says. "I was so in awe of the city." He pursued a master's degree in risk management and insurance before taking a job at the Port of Richmond from 1993 to 1996.
Mehmet and Isabel tied the knot in 1997, and they bought Zorba's in 1998. Afterward, the couple enjoyed 13 years of serving dishes such as Tilapia à la Greek and Chicken Isabella to customers who quickly became regulars. But on Jan. 3, 2011, Mehmet awoke to the most terrible phone call he could imagine. "A close family friend called and told me the restaurant had caught fire," he says. "I thought he was kidding. We had all just been there the night before." A year later, the Akpinars are thrilled to finally be reopening Zorba's (in late December, they said at press time) at their old location in Tuckernuck Square on West Broad Street, with the same beloved menu, but with a larger kitchen and redesigned dining area.
"To this day, people ask, ‘What are the odds that a Turk and a Costa Rican would meet in Richmond, fall in love and choose to own a Greek restaurant?' Mehmet says with a laugh. "It really is a small world."