Outside the living rooms of Greek families and the occasional music professor, there’s only one place you’ll hear the sharp, metallic sound of the bouzouki, a string instrument in the same family as the mandolin and the lute, on a given Tuesday night: Athena Greek Taverna, where the letters of the moniker glow royal blue against an all-white façade on Stratford Road.
The family-owned restaurant serves authentic Greek cuisine with English translations and descriptions printed in an extensive menu, including classics such as pastitsio, a macaroni and ground-beef dish topped with béchamel sauce, and a substantial list of Greek wines.
Indoors, brown paper is laid atop the blue-and-white checkered tablecloths and serene paintings of Peloponnesian sunsets and olive-oil bottles line the walls. A mirror covering a side wall creates a sense of openness. It’s casual, clean and a little rustic, making it a great lunch spot.
I advise pairing a pita sandwich with a crisp salad or one of two traditional soups: Avgolemono, which is made with chicken and rice then finished with whipped egg and lemon, and fasolada, a tomato-based white bean vegetable soup.
The complementary bread is just fine dipped in a classic oil, vinegar and black pepper combination, but using its wonderful crust to pull apart melty saganaki (fried cheese) will set your soul free. The owners import this unique cheese from Greece, douse it in brandy and set it aflame tableside. Frequent patrons know to exclaim, “Opa!” when another table’s order is served up.
While the saganaki stands out, the list of hot and cold appetizers rivals the length of the entrée menu. You’ll find everything from the spanakopita and tzatziki many will recognize to octapodi skaras, char-grilled octopus in a vinaigrette dressing, smooth whipped caviar, giant lima beans with fresh herbs and spices and delicious tirokafteri, whipped feta cheese with hot roasted peppers. It comes with eight triangles of pita, but I found myself using the spreadable dish to garnish other foods at the table, too.[pullquote]Learn more at athenagreektaverna.net and visit at 680 S. Stratford Road (W-S).[/pullquote]
Aside from skewers, one cost-effective way to satisfy a table of meat-eaters is Yianni’s Pikilia Platter which is meant to serve four people, and despite some doubts, we found that the meat alone might serve five. In the heap of assorted meat, you’ll find grilled chicken breast, gyro meat, pork and lamb chops on the bone and homemade Greek-style sausage containing coriander, fennel and oregano all atop romaine with red onion, scattered parsley and lemon wedges. In general, the seasonings are mild and earthy, and the grilled flavor comes through nicely without the meat becoming blackened. This is true for the chicken in particular, which is moist and tender. It quickly became a favorite at our table.
The platter comes with green beans cooked down in a tomato base, rice, unique lemon potatoes and one of the best Greek salads I’ve ever had. It’s simple, freshly tossed and luckily accompanies all of Athena’s entrées. Notably, though, the platter leaves out Athena’s seafood options, which include salmon, shrimp, octopus and squid. During my dinner trip, I overheard a man tell a friend that he visits Athena almost every week to eat the char-grilled octopus when it’s available — make of that what you will, but devoted regulars are most often a positive sign.
If, somehow, you have room to spare, order up some Greek coffee and baklava or a sweet (or savory) crepe. I should note that Athena’s makes ice cream in-house and plants delectable, globular éclairs at the bottom of their chocolate pudding. Even if you don’t set aside some of your entrée for later in order to accommodate these treats, the generous portions almost guarantee leftovers. And it feels like more than a restaurant piling onto a platter; it feels like taking home a plate from festivities at an old friend’s house, like carrying home a little reminder of love from their kitchen to yours.