Nestled in a tree-lined shopping plaza, the Village Café is run by an Iranian emigrant who gave up a career as an industrial engineer to cook gyros and chicken souvlaki on a short-order grill.
Parviz Aminifar came to Chicago as a college student, right before the revolution toppled the shah in 1979. Aminifar- everybody calls him "Mo"- was bitten by the restaurant bug while he waited on tables to earn some spare change after college classes.
"I don't know what it was," Aminifar said. "I just enjoyed serving people. I liked to make them happy."
After getting his engineering degree from Roosevelt University, Aminifar was in a bit of a dilemma. He couldn't return home to Iran as he had planned; the political unrest made his future there uncertain. Plus, he loved his adopted home (he would later become a U.S. citizen).
"I had family back there (in Iran), but there really wasn't anything there for me," Aminifar said. After the revolution, "everything had changed."
And he wasn't sure if engineering was right for him. Instead, he opened a nightclub.
Yas Café featured Persian, Greek and Italian food served alongside nightly belly dancers and other entertainment. It was successful, but short-lived. He was chased out by the brutal Chicago winters (think last winter's Snowmaggedon and multiply that by five months) and encouraged to move to Northern Virginia by a sister-in-law who already lived here.
"It was just too cold there and we never could get used to it," he said. "Plus I had young children to think about."
After working as a manager for the Shoney's restaurant chain, Aminifar moved to open his own place. He decided to serve up Greek food, rather than his own Persian cuisine, because he thought it was a market that he could do well in Centreville.
"It is still a Mediterranean-style of food, so it's not that different" from Persian dishes, he said. "And, I just love to cook food, whether it's Greek or whatever."
Aminifar is humble about the 1996 launch, saying that things mostly went well. But the odds weren't necessarily on his side. Most new restaurants fail and close their doors in the first few years. About a half-dozen eateries in the plaza have closed their doors in the past few years. And on a recent Friday night, the other joints still open (including a nicely remodeled Starbucks) were empty while Aminifar had a full house of noisy customers.
He attributes his success to hard work. He and his wife Rosemary split time behind the grill seven days a week, 10 hours a day. Family members and some hired staff help out, but they run the show almost every day. It can take its toll.
"If I want to go on vacation, then my wife has to work every day for two weeks while I'm off," Aminifar said. "It's tough. We haven't had a vacation together in 16 years. It can be pretty rough. But, if you don't pay attention to your place, it will fail."
They are also successful because they try to create a friendly, family-type atmosphere in the little deli, Aminifar said.
It's not a fancy joint, just a handful of tables in a tidy dining section. You can find the place by the cart full of potted, blooming flowers they keep out front. Chances are Aminifar will remember you by name and call out a hello on a return visit. The Village Café Facebook page has 531 followers and the posts almost unanimously praise the food and service.
What's his secret? Is there a special way to make a good Gyro sandwich?
"I really care about how we make the food," he said. "I guess you could call it love. I love to cook and love to see my customers happy. I enjoy it when they come back to me and say that the food was excellent."
A previous version of this article stated the wrong year the Village Cafe opened. It has been corrected.