When Dina and Yanni Panagiotakis opened Athens Family Restaurant on Thanksgiving weekend 2004, they hoped to lure customers into the former Mrs. Winner’s on Franklin Road in Melrose with the promise of good old-fashioned American diner food, emphasizing breakfast and lunch. Once their clientele became comfortable, they hoped to gradually introduce Greek cuisine via some classic, non-threatening dishes. The opening menu reflected the strategy: breakfast, served until 2:30 daily, covered the entire left side, while the right featured burgers and sandwiches, along with a couple of Greek salads and sandwiches like the signature gyro. Inserted into the sleeve on the back of the menu was a handwritten sheet of seven dinner specials devised daily by chef Yanni. The specials included simple, flavorful foods typical of a family-owned taberna in Athens, using the staples of Greek kitchens everywhere: olive oil, lemons, olives, tomatoes, oregano, feta cheese, spinach, eggplant, grape leaves and yogurt.
Many of the patrons for the justifiably popular breakfast and moderately priced lunch came from businesses in the Melrose and Berry Hill neighborhoods; the Greek dinner menu drew from all over the city. Customers familiarized themselves with the rotation of dishes—moussaka on Mondays, pastichio on Tuesdays, shrimp Mykonos on Thursdays, tilapia plaki on Friday—to be sure they could get their favorite.
The current menu at Athens Family Restaurant is proof that the Panagiotakis’ strategy paid off. Eggs, omelets, skillets, pancakes and other morning favorites still claim the left side of the menu, but the right side is now entirely devoted to Greece. Two types of moussaka—meat and vegetarian—are available every day (sized and priced appropriately for lunch and dinner). Other entrées include the hearty pastichio (a square of ground beef and noodles, topped with a thick layer of creamy béchamel sauce, then baked); sutzukakia (meatballs flavored with cumin and herbs, cooked in tomato sauce and served over rice); and spanakopita (spinach pie in phyllo dough). Under the heading “Greek seafood” are four choices, including the plaki (filets baked with tomatoes and onions and topped with chunks of melted feta) and the similarly prepared sauteed shrimp Mykonos, as well as fish Florentine and the grilled fresh fish of the day. Entrées are served with a small Greek salad or a bowl of lemony egg-based avgolemono soup, plus rice and fresh vegetable of the day. Several specials are also rotated, among them a fall-off-the-bone lamb shank cooked in tomatoes and onion, which has become so popular it will probably be added to the menu, and a grilled platter of pork chops, chicken and steak, seasoned with fresh herbs, lemon and olive oil.
American sandwiches, including grilled cheese, ham-and-cheese and burgers, are now listed on the back of the menu, though why anyone would bypass the chicken souvlaki sandwich—marinated chunks of chicken breast with lettuce, tomato, onion and tzatziki sauce in a toasted pita—for a ham-and-cheese is beyond me. The kitchen and recently refreshed dining room reveal some other changes that have taken place in the restaurant’s second year of business. When Athens opened, the most valuable player on the team was Adel Elostta, who had worked with Dina at another Nashville restaurant before Athens opened, and whom the couple recruited to help Dina run the front of the house. The affable server—who made new customers feel at home, and regulars a part of the family—also did double-duty assisting Yanni in the kitchen when the need arose.
Several months ago, during a visit to Athens, Yanni was presented with an offer he couldn’t refuse to open a restaurant there; he remains in Greece indefinitely as that project occupies his time and attention, while Dina is back running the Athens of the South. As a result, Elostta has taken a more prominent role in the Nashville restaurant, making an investment in the business as well as assuming the role of chef, though his fans and friends can be reassured that the outgoing Egyptian native does not make a habit of hiding in the kitchen. Athens Family Restaurant is at 2526 Franklin Road. Phone: 383-2848.
La Luna, the family-owned Turkish restaurant in Berry Hill, changed hands two weeks ago when Inci and Erban Cengiz sold to Adam Hartman and Sam Aburab. The partners have retained some of the Middle Eastern plates and added an extensive roster of Italian dishes, including spaghetti, baked pastas, pizza, stromboli and calzone, a change reflected in the new tagline, Middle Eastern & Italian Grill. It will be open for lunch and dinner, and remains BYOB, though hookahs are available for your group’s smoking pleasure. La Luna is at 600 West Iris Dr. Phone: 463-3707.
Blast from the past
SoBro is rife with imposing structures: the arena, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Hilton, the Gateway Bridge and, coming this fall, the newest of them all, Schermerhorn Symphony Hall. Getting less attention—and struggling with the disruptive challenges of ongoing construction that closes streets and eliminates parking—are the smaller, independently owned businesses settling into little pockets south of Broadway. Among them is Past Perfect, a bar/restaurant taking a chance on the district’s future. Opened this spring by three Chicago transplants—managing partner Matt Buttel and brothers Shawn and Rick Courtney—Past Perfect slipped into a narrow space on Third Avenue South, which the trio have renovated and modeled after an early-1900s saloon, with dark woods and a hand-built bar. The tabloid-designed menu reveals not only their repast—freshly prepared soups, salads, sandwiches, catch of the day and a few entrées—but a sense of humor, written in the style of popular newspaper parody The Onion.
Though the owners may be relative newcomers to Nashville, they know people, and among their best local connections is chef Scott Alderson, most recently of Layl’a Rul (where Buttel briefly worked as a server). Alderson—still in conversations with the Union Station Hotel folk about the property’s corner restaurant—has spent much of the last month fishing, but he is back from surf to turf and has committed to several weeks of Thursday night appearances at his friends’ place for wine and food tastings. Based on a program he initiated on Tuesday nights at Saffire, he will prepare four appetizers to pair with four different wines. The first, Thursday, July 6, will roll out like this: Trimbach Reserve Pinot Gris paired with halibut ceviche and tropical fruits; JB Adam Gewurtzaminer with harissa-cured salmon, preserved lemon fromage and Kalamata coulis; Torres Coronas Tempranillo with chorizo-manchego empanada and strawberry mole; and Altos de la Hoya Monastrell with short rib paella, Valencia rice and Cabrales cheese. The tastings begin at 6:30 p.m., and are $25 per person. Afterward, Alderson will serve as guest bartender; expect the unexpected. Past Perfect is at 122 Third Ave. S. Phone: 736-7727.
This place has closed
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