Downtown is a funny place at night. Some parts are typically bustling on a weekend night, while a couple blocks away it looks quiet and lonely.
Many congregate at the Padre Hotel and Fox Theater, with crowds extending east from there to Uricchio’s, T.L. Maxwell’s, Muertos and Chef’s Choice. Especially on First Fridays, it looks like a real city downtown. But when we visited Athena’s Greek Cafe and Grill on a Saturday night, we realized why they close early (9 p.m.). At the end of our meal we were the only customers in there, and we had a good idea why Victor’s Mexican Grill, located next door, was not open at night even on weekends.
That’s pretty unwarranted given the quality of what they offer, but we did see customers getting takeout. Chilling at home with Netflix always has appeal. But if the popular places listed above are busy, go a few blocks west and you’ll avoid a wait. Hopefully you’ll go early enough to get some of that great carrot cake (sold out on the night we visited) or the amazing baklava ($4.99).
On social media I’ve had friends griping that Athena’s is too expensive, and I see the point in some cases ($6.99 for a side of feta fries?) but would argue against it vehemently particularly in regards to what we ordered: the rack of lamb plate ($21.99) and the chicken pita ($8.49). Sure it’s served on a paper plate, but the whole place has a fast casual vibe that makes that appropriate, and I can’t recall running into rack of lamb for under $30 anywhere for decades. It’s quite possible they were soda addicts irked by the sign on the fountain drink refill stand restricting customers to “one refill per visit.” People nowadays.
The ambiance should help you put it into context. You order at a counter where the wall has been painted the perfect blue shade for Greece. The guy who took orders later brought the food out to us, seated at utilitarian metal chairs, functional but not dazzling. This isn’t Cafe Med, but it does have a selection of Greek beers including Mythos, and a decent California chardonnay for $4.99 a glass.
On to the food. We had two problems with the lamb plate, which my companion ordered. The salad that came with it had feta cheese, cucumber and tomato slices in a good vinaigrette but no red onions. The other was that we ordered the meat medium, but the five chops were inconsistently prepared, with some medium and some rare. Other than that the plate was great, with their famous lemon-olive oil baked potato chunks that are a must order, and the garlic on the lamb right in the Goldilocks zone: not too much, not too little. And at that price, the meal was a deal.
The chicken pita had no flaws. You can choose whole wheat or regular pita bread (we chose wheat) and it was soft and pliable and filled with those red onions my companion wanted in her salad, tomato slices, large skewered chunks of chicken breast and a tzatziki sauce that held it all together. It was huge, too, but I had to finish it.
The menu is pared down from the Rosedale location, as it should be for a fast lunch operation, but you can get burgers, souvlaki, gyros, biftekipita and a gyro salad, which we’ve enjoyed in the past. And though plastic utensils were available near the counter my companion was presented with a metal fork and steak knife for that rack of lamb plate, as she should be.
Athena also offers the best baklava in town. We’ve had the butter-honey-pistachio pastry many times in the past and there are places that make it almost sickeningly sweet. This version is perfectly in balance, so you can taste the honey and the nuts. Perfectly flaky. If I worked nearby, I’d stop in after lunch anywhere else to get a triangle of it if only for a 3 p.m. energy jolt. But by all means try the carrot cake ($4.99) if you can, as it’s the best in town. It’s so moist, so nutty, the frosting not too sweet, and the whole thing decorated on the outside with bright orange shaved carrots. My companion found them so bright she wondered if they were real. They are. If you’re a fan of this particular dessert, you’ve got to sample this version. And another irresistible sweet we’ve had there in the past are the oatmeal Florentine cookies ($3), notable for a thick dark chocolate middle made of truly high-quality chocolate.
Service was welcoming, kind and personable from our young server Raymond. He got everything right in our complicated order, and made us want to go back. Next time, at lunch, when I’m sure it will be more crowded but the amazing carrot cake will likely be available.