Nearly ten years ago, Desy Nikolova left her homeland of Bulgaria and moved to the United States with high hopes. What began as an idyllic journey ended in disappointment, the result of which she calls “a sad love story.”
Rather than wallowing in self-pity and heartbreak, Nikolova chose to channel her passion into serving others. In 2011, she launched Desy’s Grill & Bar in Morrisville. Then, last year, she opened a second restaurant in Cary, Sophie’s Grill & Bar.
Nikolova’s convivial personality and determined spirit have helped her find entrepreneurial success in the volatile restaurant industry.
“My typical day starts at 5 a.m., and the hours are long,” she said during a recent conversation at Sophie’s, named after Sophia, Bulgaria’s capital. “It is a big challenge to go from owning one sports bar to having two places to run, but the people in Cary have been very supportive.”
One of Nikolova’s primary goals involves sharing eastern European culture with people in the Triangle. While she considers her eponymous eatery in Morrisville a straightforward sports bar, at Sophie’s she features a mixture of traditional pub fare along with Old-World cuisine.
Among the traditional Bulgarian dishes are slow-cooked lamb shanks with carrots, potatoes and roasted vegetables; zesty stuffed peppers filled with pork and lamb; and Chicken Gyuvech, a hearty stew with eggplant, zucchini and potatoes.
“I make food like my mother and grandmother made it,” Nikolova said with a smile, adding that she is self-taught and not a formally trained chef. “The secret of my food is keeping it simple and using fresh ingredients.”
Classic Greek moussaka pays homage to Nikolova’s parents, both of whom hail from Greece. It contains ground lamb (and sometimes turkey) with zucchini, potatoes and eggplant, crowned with bechamel sauce.
Popular American offerings include jumbo chicken wings marinated in Red Oak beer; grilled Alaskan salmon served atop angel hair pasta; and an Angus beef Philly steak sandwich with sautéed mushrooms, onions and peppers.
If you have trouble narrowing down your choice, order “My Big Fat Lamb Burger,” a perfectly seasoned hand-pattied specialty topped with melted feta cheese. It’s served with a side of crisp, hand-cut fries.
First-rate desserts like Grand Sophia torte and a blueberry torte are created by fellow Bulgarian Nely Dimitrova, who works alongside Nikolova each day. Drawn together by their shared heritage, the two women met around the time Desy’s Grill & Bar opened some eight years ago.
“Nely is like a sister to me,” Nikilova said. “She is also goddess of the cakes.”
The proprietor also takes pride in the bar at Sophie’s. More than two dozen draft beers rotate regularly, with half of the selections coming from local brewers.
“I like to give people what they want, but I also want to introduce them to unique craft cocktails,” she said. “When people come in, my hope is to create a memorable experience for them.”
Nikolova makes every effort to ensure that her guests feel comfortable and appreciated every time they visit Sophie’s (the restaurant’s motto is “Welcome Home”). Large wooden tables seat 10 people comfortably.
“We love to have families and groups come in and stay as long as they want,” she said. “Our policy is to never give the guest a check until they ask for it.”
A complimentary salad bar is available every day, and kids 12 and younger eat free every Wednesday. There’s live entertainment four nights a week.
Whenever you see Nikolova, one thing is certain: She will always be standing. Whether she’s delivering food to guests, talking to regulars at the bar or working in the kitchen, she’s constantly on her feet.
“In our culture, the hostess never sits down,” she explained. “I want to put my personal touch on everything.”
Part of that personal touch includes vintage black-and-white family photos on the wall and pictures of well-known women throughout history who have made a lasting impact in the world.
“I didn’t want to have only photos of beautiful actresses,” she said, “but I wanted to display pictures of women who have made a real difference.”
Despite her demanding professional responsibilities, Nikolova managed to find time last year to become a citizen of the United States. She is both gratified and grateful for this accomplishment.
“People tried to tell me there was no American dream anymore, but I said, ‘I will show you that the American dream is still real,’” she said. “Because I didn’t travel all the way from Bulgaria for nothing.”