You found it somehow – it’s a Greek restaurant you read about in a review or one you stumbled across while out for a walk. It doesn’t matter what type of Greek restaurant it is – home-style cooking or elegant dining; there will always be ways to tell if it’s great.
Smells and sounds
Great Greek food is as filling to the senses as it is to the stomach. The place will smell divine, from the moment you walk in. And it won’t be quiet. It’s nearly impossible to enjoy a fabulous Greek dining experience in silence.
What’s on the menu
It doesn’t matter if the dishes are plain or fancy, traditional or modern cuisine; they will be authentically Greek. Greek restaurants outside Greece tend to serve either well-known dishes like moussaka and baklava, or the very health-conscious Greek dishes like grilled seafood and spare vegetables. There is, however, an entire range of dishes that is under-represented - casserole dishes and thick soups - made from wonderful taste combinations of vegetables, herbs, pastas, lentils and beans. If these are on the menu and are well-prepared, it's a definite bonus!
Fresh is paramount. Greek is paramount. Olive oil, fresh-baked crusty breads, Greek cheeses and wines, fresh fruits and vegetables, lentils and beans, Greek favorites such as oregano, dill, garlic, and lemon will all be represented.
Appetizers and mezethes
A Greek restaurant without a good selection of appetizers or mezethes from which to choose could hardly be called great. Appetizers should whet the appetite, mezethes should complement (but not overwhelm) the beverage, whether wine, spirits, or other drink choice. These small plates of tasty morsels and dips are as much a part of the Greek dining experience as the main meal (and sometimes, adding more and more of these small dishes can become the main meal).
The restaurant's serving staff doesn't have to be Greek - but of course it adds to the overall atmosphere if it is; however, if the restaurant is truly great, servers - whether professionals (Greek or not) or family members of the owner - are able to describe dishes, recommend combinations of foods, and answer questions. For those who are long-time fans of Greek food, it’s always interesting to hear about regional variations in a dish on the menu; for those with no experience of Greek food, learning about the tradition of mezethes, or a bit of the history of a dish adds enormous enjoyment to a meal. For those on restricted diets, knowledgeable staff is able to direct them to divine dishes that meet their dietary requirements. And if dishes require extra preparation time, servers point that out during the ordering process.
If the restaurant has a sommelier to recommend and present the wines, she/he is knowledgeable about the region of Greece where the wine was made, which wine is traditionally served with which dish, and which wine – despite tradition – might be an even better choice with a particular dish, and why.
Presentation and taste
It smells wonderful, it’s authentic, the ingredients are right, and it has been explained by staff, and now the defining moment is at hand. The food is delivered as ordered. The cheeses and sauces have wonderful textures. Phyllo pastry is light as air. Dishes are cooked to perfection and taste at least as good as they have been described – either on the menu or by the staff.
What Doesn’t Matter
Don’t mistake décor for atmosphere, or equate it with the overall experience. Some Greek restaurants have an understated décor that works with everything else to create the ultimate Greek dining experience, and some of the most mediocre restaurants are lavishly decorated to look like Greek landscapes. While décor can add to the general atmosphere, it doesn’t define a great Greek restaurant.
Although there are many fine restaurants with obvious Greek names, a Greek name (even combined with the word "great") is neither an automatic indicator that the food is Greek, nor a promise that the restaurant is outstanding.
What’s not on the menu
A great Greek restaurant may never serve moussaka or baklava (although many do because they are so well known), but it’s what it does serve, and how, that counts.
Καλή Όρεξι! Enjoy!