by Karen Newton
Three generations noisily occupy a large table and two high chairs, with each of the adults announcing to the server that they're getting "my usual." In a booth sit two couples who haven't seen each other in a decade, but their greeting makes clear they have a meal history here dating back to the Clinton years.
Welcome to Athens Tavern, where you're the exception if it's your maiden voyage.
Some quick background: Josephine Flemotomas' parents opened Athens in 1981 while living above the restaurant. After changing hands in 2002, the restaurant closed its doors in 2014. Flemotomas and her husband Spiros — owners since 2009 of Gus' Bar and Grill on Broad Street — reopened Athens in May. Regulars returned in droves.
Longtime devotees who haven't yet made it back can rest assured that the reboot brings no shock of the new. Just about everything is familiar, including the Greek music, art and menu of greatist hits.
Some dishes never go out of style. Buttery and flaky, an appetizer of spanakopita and tiropita ($8) is as reliable a starter as it surely was when the original owners lived upstairs. Vegans can kick off their meal with fava zakynthinia ($7), a simple fava bean dip topped with black-eyed peas, red onion, capers and olive oil, with pita wedges, cucumbers, tomatoes and olives making for solid accomplices. Stuffed with goat feta, the savory notes of grilled red peppers florinis ($8) are winningly balanced with the sweetness of a Santorini balsamic glaze underneath.
I've known people who frequented Athens solely for the avgolemono ($6), and once you've experienced the Greek chicken soup with orzo, whipped egg and lemon, chances are you'll be testifying, too. Particularly at this time of year, it's the kind of dish that's both an antidote for the frigid weather and a bowl of healthy immunity for what ails you.
Like any number of cuisines from other countries, you can expect to see recurring ingredients on the two-page menu, which is bolstered by a third page of Greek wines ($20-36), Greek and domestic beers ($5-8) and Greek-themed cocktails ($8-9) such as the Aegean Breeze based on Greek moonshine. Because of course the Greeks would have had moonshine before anyone else.
Pasta options are plentiful and undeniably hearty, like pasticcio, which translates to hodgepodge ($12): layers of thick noodles with seasoned ground beef, warm spices like cinnamon and allspice and bechamel sauce before being smothered in marinara sauce.
Even meatier is makaronatha lamia ($14), which uses as its base Greek pasta No. 5, a hearty noodle thicker than spaghetti, in symphony with a meat sauce of the Greek sausage known as loukanilio, meatballs, mushrooms and roasted red pepper. Baked under a layer of cheese, finishing it all but guarantees you'll want nothing so much as a snooze.
Not every dish displayed such immaculate attention to detail. Billed as "tender chunks of marinated chicken," the reality of the chicken kebab ($12) is bland, unseasoned meat without even a hint of salt and pepper, much less marinated. It's a shame when the highlight of a kebab is the onion slices. Slightly more enticing was souvlakia pita ($10), given that at least the pork tasted of marinade, although it was so dry and overcooked that not even tzatziki could revive it. Having been seduced by a photo on Facebook, I chose a side of kolokithakia ($6) — described as towers of feta-topped zucchini — only to have the zucchini towers show up naked, or at least sans feta. Hello? Is anyone paying attention in the kitchen?
Outcomes were considerably brighter for seafood fans, as in the case of garides reganata ($19), jumbo shrimp wearing crowns of feta and swimming in a sea of oregano-lemon butter. Succulent and satisfying, the tender shrimp show a deft hand with simple ingredients.
Servers were friendly and knowledgeable, correcting our Greek mispronunciations with humor and no hint of condescension. And even if there's no relation, the staff conveys an inviting, familial welcome to their community table.
As someone who hasn't been a longtime regular, I didn't have usual dishes to fall back on. But over the course of three visits, I found several dishes with the potential to be go-tos in the future.
Athens has a comfortable ambiance and genial service in its favor. That devoted following has got to be happy that it's back in the family. S
Tuesdays – Sundays 5 – 10 p.m.
401 N. Robinson St.
Athens-Tavern on Facebook
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