I always wondered how Athens restaurant survived, located where it was, tucked away in the back corner of the Folly Road shopping center that long ago boasted a Harris Teeter. If you didn't know better, you'd never even notice the place. Not so any longer. Athens has built its very own miniature strip mall on Maybank Highway, giving itself big spaces in new buildings in which to stretch its legs.
Stretch is what Athens has done, too. Now occupying three of the six storefronts in the shopping center, the restaurant has split up the duties, with a "take-out express" concept and a "coffee-desserts-pastries" concept sitting separately alongside the main restaurant.
Devotees of the original restaurant have nothing to fear -- Athens' time-tested recipe of affordable, sturdy Greek food remains unmolested. The restaurant serves up generous portions of dependably good food in a brand-spanking new environment. The dining room is pretty, but cavernous, with ceilings some 20-odd feet above and tasteful lighting from a slew of sconces. The tremendous height of the room coupled with so many hard surfaces makes it rather loud (and I can only imagine what it takes to heat it) -- when we entered the slowly-filling dining room, the absence of background music made our every word echo through the place, making me wish someone would turn up the tunes. Looking at the four-tops throughout the room, our host offered us a "booth." Of course.
The bad news about the booths is that they're designed for two people only, and also that they are not designed for the plates that come out of the kitchen. Several times during our meal, we were goaded by our server to lift plates and hold them while he determinedly tried squeezing everything onto the table. Once you've got a glass of water and a glass of wine each on the table, adding two bread plates and oversized pasta bowls to them makes for quite a placement challenge.
The food is good, as I said, if a little clumsy at times. Spanakopita ($5.99), one of the companion's favorite dishes, was tasty, if perhaps a bit light on the pastry for my taste, and she dispatched the large chunk of it happily. Cheesy, loads of spinach, lightly crunchy phyllo. My fried oysters ($5.95) were likewise good, fried properly, and not too breaded, although the presentation was a bit odd: the oysters perched atop a heap of undressed cut leaf lettuce. If one tossed those greens in a simple vinaigrette, say, one would then have a fried oyster salad rather than an "appetizer," but at least then one wouldn't have to feel a tad guilty at leaving half a head of untouched lettuce on the plate. The accomplice had to have the hummus ($5.25), and she was in heaven when it arrived -- two big scoops, garlicky and redolent with lemon, served with some very nice pita wedges.
My spaghetti and meatballs ($10.95) was excellent in its own way, with two big meatballs, tender and delicious, smothered in outstanding red sauce. The pasta was pleasantly overcooked -- not "fresh, al dente" at all, but nice and tender in a homey sort of way. I went over the top and added Greek sausage ($2) to it, finding thin slices instead of whole links, but it was so good I didn't mind a bit. The server-grated parmesan cheese was a nice touch.
Beef kabobs ($11.95) were large chunks of tender beef and similarly large chunks of onions, peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes, with the skewers removed in the kitchen. The meat was cooked to the requested medium, and the vegetables were still a little crunchy but showed nice grill marks -- just right -- adding up to a pretty plate and a great value. Also adding to the value was the fact that each entrée is accompanied by a Greek salad as part of the price -- green leaf lettuce, feta, a few tomato slices, vinaigrette -- simple, but a bonus.
We asked to box up the copious leftovers, and our server ran off to bring us takeout containers. Looking at the jam-packed table, he handed us the boxes and departed. Some minutes later, we had finished the gymnastics required to manipulate huge plates and plastic boxes on the diminutive table and bagged up our boxes.
Ordering dessert was ridiculous, but we did so anyway, unable to resist the "Athens Special Delight" -- vanilla with chocolate sauce, perched atop baklava ($5.95). Again, simple, but very tasty.
Coupled with two glasses of "Athens Label" cabernet ($4.50), our tab came to a very reasonable $60 -- easy on the wallet, especially since we had eaten enough for four. One can see that there's a lot of value to be had here. With more restrained ordering, one could easily fill up for half that amount.
A follow-up trip next door to the "Pizza Express and Café" was revealing. My cheeseburger ($5.25) was big, beefy, and tasty. Only tomato and lettuce to dress it, but with a pile of excellent steak fries included in the price, how mad can one get? The gyro ($5.25) looked a little puny at first glance, but after a couple of bites, the quantity and quality of the meat inside made me forget all about that perception. The gyro will require an extra dollar to include fries; worth it. The pizza was perhaps the only disappointment -- the "Athens Special" ($13.25, 10"), a combo classic of pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, olives, onions, and peppers, was hot and tasty, although the lousy canned olives would make a Grecian blush, and the pie was teeny. Really teeny. The smallest $14 pizza I've ever seen. It was delicious, but that Athens value I'd become accustomed to was notably absent.
A doorway connects to the coffeehouse part of these three businesses, where a barista awaits your mocha latte order, and a large case of Greek and non-Greek breads and pastries beckons. I asked, and then she leaned across the counter to tell me, in halting English, no, they're not made there, but literally everything in the case looks like you want to try it, no matter the origin.
And so, the Athens tradition of hearty food, generous portions, and good value continues in its shiny new digs. I am certain the loyal regulars will keep coming back, and with the new, higher-profile location, they'll be attracting new patrons as well. The satellite shops in this new Athenian part of Maybank add a new dimension ... just one more reason to go Greek!