Despite my brain’s need to dissect, question, and analyze human behavior, I love and appreciate simplicity, satisfying primal urges and keying into my sense perceptions. I’m grateful to have all my senses in tact at the moment, but mostly I’m driven by taste, by flavor and texture, by bouncing food around each of my taste buds, challenging my cheeks and jaw by taking the biggest bites, chewing slowly, eyes rolling back in my head in sheer foodgasmic bliss. I plan my days around my meals, no longer satisfied by a handful of nuts or shoving a granola bar down my throat on the go (I never achieved satisfaction, just placated my appetite for 45 minutes), I must want and enjoy every single bite I take. A close second and a partner in crime to the taste bud is the often under-appreciated sense of smell. Many cannot eat certain foods, brussel sprouts, leaks, seafood to name a few, simply because of their sensitivity to the smell. Unless it smells like a plastic bag with 20-year-old farts I can typically get past a strange look or smell and give the flavor a shot, but nothing gives me more pleasure than to spike my serotonin with the waft of fresh, warm food. I went to the Athenian Room to use the bathroom and immediately decided to come back that evening for what was sure to be some incredible fare. I’ve never smelled something delicious and then hated the taste, so you know I was happy to find a cozy Greek restaurant not too far from my door. I love Greece. Greek people. Greek food. Greek drink (oopaa!). Greek tradition. Greek history. Greek bodies. Greek islands. I even love that silly romantic comedy about that Greek wedding. And I really love that Chicago has a Greek town. What I love even more is this charming little eatery is in Lincoln Park, a good distance from Greek town and therefore a nice walk or a short train ride from my apartment to their location, a splendid red door just under their unassuming sign, illuminated by the white lit trees lining Webster avenue, just west of Halsted. Walking inside that small, bright red door your amygdala is immediately overwhelmed by the most exquisite aroma. I swear I felt high, a beautiful head rush, pure nirvana and enraged hunger was now pumping my blood and diminishing my patience. It smelled fresh, bold, the musical sounds of crackling grilled meat and vegetables now translating into a smokey, succulent scent, titillating my appetite and lust for Greek culture.
Upon entering, taking in a panoramic view of the small but charming design, the smooth dark-red brick at your feet, the narrow brick archways bridging the foundation and the ceiling, the romantic lighting; I’m immediately snapped out of my slow-motion romantic in-take by a powerful woman standing at the curved, tiny brick countertop serving as the entrance to the kitchen. She is tall, older, confident and magnetic. For some reason watching her move and interact made me think she’s probably a dominatrix at home, not necessarily the image you want while trying to stimulate your appetite, but I had to distract my mind from it’s hunger and people watching with a like-minded soul is just what I needed. We told her table for two, she kindly said to wait 10-15 minutes and without taking our names she carried on, business as usual. While observing the diverse walks of life also awaiting their meals, I took advantage of the bird’s eye view we had into the kitchen. A few, hard-working men and women, standing over fire for hours on-end to execute impeccable dish after dish for the endless onslaught of customers on a Saturday night. I am in awe of every employee working at family run restaurants such as this, all pivotal to the success of their business, night after night, year after year, surviving and thriving through a long recession. I do my best to make eye-contact, smile, tip and give any extra nod of respect and appreciation I can. These strangers are a huge piece to my happiness puzzle and they deserve even more gratitude and admiration than I could ever give.
After twelve and a half quick minutes full of humorous observation, my curly-haired soul sister and I were summoned by our kind fem fatale to a comfy table for two, nestled in between elderly couples on a double date, a group of girls enjoying a friend’s night out, couples with children, and larger tables full of celebration and joy. I was immediately transported to the countless restaurants in Greece, Italy and throughout Europe donning their unique facade and decor, the heart-warming staff, the enticing smells, and the even more spectacular tastes. Each of my favorite restaurants and experiences throughout my life had their own unique quality and nuance, but all exhibited the same formula for success; quality ingredients, traditional recipes, genuine care for customers and an atmosphere that wraps all of it together in a memorable, soulful package.
I kept expressing how happy I was before I took even one bite of food. I loved being inside what I felt was such a special place, a place to be enjoyed with those deserving of good company and good eats. I kept taking deep breaths, almost yogic in quality, to fully fill my lungs and nasal cavity with that intoxicating aroma, so reminiscent of my mother’s kitchen, but again, with special, Greek distinctions. Opening the menu I was pleased to see a small list of items, as usual the focus being quality, being tradition; if it’s not broke don’t fix it. The Greeks mastered many things (maybe not economics, but that’s another issue for the EU to tackle) and similar to French, Italian, Spanish, and the long list of others with incomparable feasts, the greatest restaurants stay true to what their ancestors conquered long before preservatives and the creative ways we fuck up perfectly stunning food more than a million years of evolution brought our way. I miss my family’s cooking and the tiny but powerful individually owned restaurants in Europe, but living in Chicago and finding places like this quells that yearning and sadness, bringing the smile back to my heart through the complicated conduit of consumption (you’re welcome for that epic display of alliteration!).
Now for the nitty-gritty, the important piece, the grub. I’ll say that I watched a few entrees placed in front of other patron’s seats and every single one made me green with envy. I’m not one who always wants what someone else is having. I want what I’m having and yours too. Give it. I’ll eat it and I’ll moan and roll my eyes with pleasure, sinking this visceral experience into my bones. I will kick your ass at eating. Not sure why I resorted to my old competitive ways but not to worry, I will not steal all of your food if we dine together, but we’ll certainly have a better time if you’re not a picky pain in the ass and you join me in the adventure of sharing a bunch of delectable treats rather than selfishly hoarding your one. And that is just what we did. We shared a simple, fresh Greek salad, full of savory kalamata olives, smooth feta cheese, juicy cucumber and tomato lying on a bed of crispy lettuce lightly drizzled with a vinaigrette. Accompanying that was a favorite of mine, Spanakopita, a spinach pie baked inside a flakey, puff pastry until golden brown. Seriously, so damn good. For our meal we shared another traditional Greek dish, chicken breast kebab, smokey and juicy, alongside some peppers and onions, on top of the most delicious Greek style steak fries I’ve ever had, somehow maintaining their crispy texture while absorbing the marinade resting at the bottom of the plate. In addition to that magic we also received a warm, pure piece of pita (more alliteration, I’m really on it today), with tzatziki sauce. I took some baklava home and was again pleasantly surprised, as that is not only one of my favorite desserts, but a challenging one to make and therefore rare to find in quality. I left somehow happier than I went in, having had excellent conversation and equally fantastic mastication.
It is very important I mention what an unbelievable deal this place is. We ate like queens, each taking something extra to go, all totaling $27 American dollars. I do believe you get what you pay for, but that payment does not just come in money. You pay attention, energy, focus, love and hope on things everyday. What you get back from the Athenian Room will far outweigh anything you put in. You won’t even be disgustingly full. Your experience will be so well-rounded, a treat for your senses, a snuggie for your soul. Go. Now. And then go again. They deserve your patronage and you deserve the experience.
Eat, spend, speak with consciousness. Enjoy.