Athens Family Restaurant
2526 Franklin Rd. 383-2848.
7 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; 7:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Sun.
Prince range: $-$$
Two weeks before the first spanakopita came out of their kitchen, Yanni and Dina Panagiotakis announced their arrival in the Melrose neighborhood with the installation of a large sign they hoped would catch the attention of the thousands of cars that drive Eighth Avenue South every day: Athens Family Restaurant. They chose the name Athens in honor of their heritageYanni was born and raised in Crete, Dina is first-generation Greek-Americanand as tribute to their new home, the Athens of the South. And when they say family, they ain't lyin'.
Rarely will a customer walk into Athens Family Restaurant and not find both of them there; never will both of them be absent at the same time. But if you want to meet Dina, you'd better get over there fast, because she and Yanni are splitting up, and a new woman will be taking her place at the restaurant.
Not that Dina and Yanni are having troubles; to the contrary, the couple have been happily married for 15 years. But in mid-January, Dina received a phone call from the producers of Wife Swap, the ABC reality show that takes two families from wildly divergent cultural, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds and switches wives for 10 days in the supposition that the tried-and-true fish-out-of-water formula will prove entertaining and edifying. The Panagiotakis familywhich also includes 13-year-old daughter Katerina and 10-year-old son Angelowas discovered in an online search for Greek-American family business owners in the South.
Yanni is a little concerned about Dina's temporary replacement, whom they understand to be a nonworking, wealthy woman with plenty of household help. Like many women in the real world, as opposed to TV world, Dina is working dawn to dark, caring for the kids full-time, keeping house and do-it-yourselfing, multitasking all the while. But Yanni's not worried about his wife getting too accustomed to living in the lap of luxury. "I think it will be fine for about three days," Dina says. "Then I'll go crazy and be looking for something to do."
There has been plenty to do through the course of their marriage. Yanni, who came to America in 1986 with no money, job or family, started his restaurant career in a Brooklyn diner; he and Dina met in a Manhattan restaurant her first day on the job. She laughs when she says, "He swept me off my feet," but clearly she was smitten, at his side ever since. After living in New York and Washington, D.C., they moved to Sarasota, Fla., and opened their own restaurant. Ultimately, they had three, though not all simultaneously: Dina's Family Restaurant was a casual breakfast-lunch-dinner place, and Yanni's Place and Yanni's Greek Taverna were dinner restaurants with exclusively Greek menus.
For 10 years, Dina's sister has lived in the Nashville area and kept urging the couple to open a place here. Up for a change of scenery (and weather), they arrived in July and began scouting available buildings. "We didn't know what kind of restaurant we would open when we came," says Yanni. "When we found the place, that told us."
The place they found was on a gritty strip of Eighth Avenue South that's in the nascent stages of redevelopment. Neither the building nor the location would support an upscale restaurant, so they replicated Dina's Family Restaurant, banking on the drive-by exposure from the north-south artery outside their front door, and on support from the densely populated commercial and residential areas surrounding them.
They gave the small building a complete makeover, exorcising the ghosts of the fast food restaurant that had been there before. Walls are painted sky-blue on top, cobalt on the bottom; glass-topped panels of white-painted wood break up the dining room into cozy sections; the big plate-glass windows are trimmed in white or bright red; blue-and-white Grecian pottery hangs on the walls; tables are covered in white oilcloth. Customers seat themselves and are promptly attended to by a tight crew of friendly and attentive servers, led by the charming Adel Elosta, who also puts in time in the kitchen as duty calls.
Not knowing if Nashville was familiar with Greek food, or would be willing to give it a shot, Athens Family Restaurant opened the Saturday after Thanksgiving with a lengthy menu common to any American diner. There is an emphasis on breakfast, served daily until 2:30 p.m. A slate of "Favorite American Sandwiches" includes turkey, grilled cheese, BLT and Reuben, and five types of burgers. One column on the menu ventures into more ethnic fare with Greek salads (one with lettuce, one without), a gyro, and chicken or pork souvlaki.
Athens quickly established itself as the answer to the question, "Where should we go for breakfast?," thanks to its three-egg omelets, fat sausage links, eggs benedict with rich homemade hollandaise sauce, fluffy pancakes, and thinly sliced, crisped home fries that are already word-of-mouth contenders for the best in town. In fact, the restaurant has become so popular for breakfast that regulars know to get there early if they want their run of the menu. The most popular items tend to sell out quickly, and when they're gone, they're gone.
When it's time for dinner, though, it's the back of the menu that newcomers and regulars alike turn to. Seven Greek specialties are offered daily, and they're the kind of thing one might find in a family-owned taberna. The dishes are simple, flavorful, freshly prepared comfort foods using the staples of Greek cuisine: olive oil, lemons, garlic, olives, spinach, feta cheese, tomatoes, eggplant, grape leaves, oregano, parsley and rosemary. All entrées are served with perfectly cooked rice, fresh vegetables of the day (usually squash-tomatoes-onion, or green beans in tomato sauce), a small Greek salad and warmed, buttered, sliced pita bread that's as addictive as Jimmy Kelly's corncakes.
Monday features chicken lemonato, an oven-baked half-chicken with fresh herbs and lemon; spanakopita, fresh spinach and feta cheese wrapped in buttery, flaky phyllo; and a standard-setting moussaka, layers of eggplant, zucchini and ground beef topped with a one-inch golden-crisped roof of béchamel sauce. Tuesday's choices kick off with another popular one-dish meal, pastitsio: ground beef, tomatoes and tubular pasta, also capped with a thick layer of homemade béchamel. Tuesday diners might opt instead for the soutzoukakia, Greek-seasoned meatballs in tomato sauce, or chicken Florentine, a boneless breast stuffed with spinach and feta, then topped with lemon-egg yolk avgolemono sauce. Athens' dolmas, grape leaves wrapped around ground beef and rice, are entrée-sized and available on Wednesdays. Go on Thursday for shrimp Mykonos, sauteed with fresh tomatoes, herbs and feta cheese, and go on Fridays for lamb kabob, fish Florentine or tilapia plaki, a filet of fresh tilapia baked with tomato, onion sauce and feta cheese. Though alcohol is not served, wine glasses are brought to the table if you bring your own bottle.
Quite honestly, based on my four visits over the course of one week, there simply isn't a bad time to go to Athens Family Restaurant. My party of seven children and four adults was as warmly welcomed, efficiently served and well-fed at Monday dinner as the party of three I brought for breakfast one very busy Saturday morning. On my second visit, I spotted a table of diners who had been there on my first; we nodded at one another as if to affirm our wise choice.
Hanging on the wall between the front door and the rest rooms are framed reviews of Yanni's Taverna from Florida papers. The critics write reverently of imam baildi, eggplant baked with tomato and onion; arni exohikon, lamb stew baked in phyllo; and kalamaraki tiganito, fried squid served with lemon wedges. Though focused now on establishing Athensand on surviving their nationally televised spousal swapYanni and Dina are keeping their eyes open for the perfect location for a small Greek restaurant; the write-ups on the wall offer a tantalizing hint of what the future might hold for longtime and brand-new fans of Greek cuisine.
But in the meantime, whether it's a Greek omelet and home fries, or soutzoukakia and rice, Athens Family Restaurantfamily-owned, family-friendly, family-valuedis the perfect location, any day, any time.