Olives & Plates has graduated from its origins as a small canteen at Wits University into a sophisticated handful of restaurants. These include two Sandton sites, and now one in arguably the most luxury-focused mall in Joburg, Hyde Park Corner.

Thing is, the brand’s owners had sworn off moving into shopping centres because of the high rentals. This opportunity, however, proved too appealing.

Andria Neophytou, who runs the restaurants, wasn’t interested in opening a new store. The family involved in the business (two sisters and two brothers-in-law) had decided they had enough on the go for now. Their Sandton restaurants opened earlier this year: first in West Street and then in a residential complex, The Embassy. After that, they planned to consolidate the business.

Then Neophytou fell in love with the Hyde Park space. "The views are insane. I saw our concept working so well together with Exclusive Books," she explains, her eyes bright with excitement.

"I thought, do I take this on? Then I thought, what if I don’t?

"I couldn’t walk away from the Hyde Park venture. I felt it needed so much nurturing and I felt it needed love and I felt it needed a good mother to care for it."

It’s no small feat, in a spectacularly tough economy, to be asked to open additional outlets. What sets the Olives & Plates offering apart are the fresh ingredients, the beautiful presentation, the abundance of herbs and the fine attention to detail. You’d be pressed to find more finely cut vegetables in a salad, or one with more flourishes, twists and turns in its plating.

"I’m Greek, very Mediterranean. I think I understand flavours and freshness and good produce," she says, while admitting she is not her suppliers’ best friend. "They always get a call from me saying that they haven’t gone to God’s garden to get me avocados today."

Family affair

Andria runs the restaurants, while her sister Litza Frangos runs the canteen and corporate offices, which generate the bulk of the business. Jimmy Neophytou, Andria’s husband, focuses on logistics and human resources. Apo Frangos, Litza’s husband, is the legal guy.

They all have hearty backgrounds in food. Jimmy used to run a Dulce Café. The sisters’ parents had a Wimpy in Lydenburg, and as a child Andria would turn sandwiches at the Wimpy, standing on a Coke box. "I sleep, read, eat, dream and think food all the time," she explains.

Five years ago, Salvatore Osato came on board as a partner. He’d sold Europa and Fego to Famous Brands.

And all this, from a tiny seed of a canteen at Wits 22 years ago. Back then, the sisters just wanted to serve healthy, beautiful food. "I hate anything oily, greasy ... there were psychedelic pink viennas. I said imagine putting in a salad bar and serving healthy sandwiches." They started a pop-up shop and out came healthy, fresh cooking and home-made lasagne.

What followed was their restaurant in the charming space at the Cape Dutch-style Wits Club; then two more at the university’s medical and business schools, respectively. Today they also run canteens for corporates, including MultiChoice and legal firm Hogan Lovells.

The Hyde Park offering has followed a similar formula to the existing restaurants, with some tweaks. There’s a harvest table over lunchtime, from Monday to Friday. And they’ll be open at night, apart from Sundays.

The menu includes what are now Olives & Plates classics, including the meze platter, chicken Caesar salad and the deeply comforting sage and onion roast chicken breast.

While Social Kitchen (originally in the Hyde Park space) was more industrial chic, they’ve added chandeliers and splashes of powder blue and soft pink.

Where to next? "Can you plan it?" Andria replies. "Look what happened six weeks ago. I honestly thought I wouldn’t open another restaurant this year. This is the last one."

Famous last words, of course.