By Zeus! The Greek restaurants on Elmwood Avenue are more numerous than Athena's golden apples.
What an institution the Greek restaurant has become. Look around any breakfast place, and odds are you'll spot at least one picture of the Acropolis. Find a 24-hour place, and you'll probably see souvlaki on the menu. Gyro, spanokopita, tzatziki . . . even those of us who failed high school Spanish have gotten glib with these basic Greek words.
And if you don't like Greek food, all is not lost: A self-respecting Greek place almost always includes its own take on middle-America diner food. With luck, you'll find meatloaf, fried fish, whatever the conservative stomach desires.
How many kudos do Elmwood Avenue's restaurants deserve for these various amenities? Oh, you can believe they're all alike - but that's not what the experts say.
"They're different," argues Thomas Eoannou, the Greek-American lawyer who defended Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesny over the sheriff's horse incident.
"They're not the same at all!" echoes Ansgarius Aylward, who is also of Greek descent and who plays first violin for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.
Join us on a Greek gambol, beginning downtown and continuing north toward Buffalo State College. Call it a diner's dithyramb, an omnivore's odyssey, an epicure's Iliad . . . by the huge heaping helpings of Hercules! Someone stuff a grape leaf in our mouth, before we get carried away.
The Towne restaurant, 186 Allen St., at Elmwood Avenue
All types, all hours, that's the Towne. You can go there in the middle of the night and stand a chance of seeing hippies, cops, rockers and drag queens all dining at adjoining tables.
"When I first came here, the Towne was just that little part in the front, four or five stools at a counter," says Aylward. "We'd walk down from orchestra rehearsal; you'd have to wait in line. A few booths, that was it! And it used to be packed."
Years later, the violinist is still rhapsodizing. "The rice pudding at the Towne! That is the living end," he marvels. "I make it myself and I make it pretty well. But theirs is the best." He adores the Greek lemon chicken soup. "It's better than my mother used to make."
A lunchtime stop reveals that the Towne has service down to a fine art. Coffee was constant and fresh. Food was hot.
The chicken souvlaki, though the salad part was unprepossessing, was piled with meat - generous, mildly spiced and irresistibly juicy. Rice pudding, studded with raisins, was the smoothest we encountered. And the baklava, more compact than others we tried, reminded us of a rich coffee cake.
Ambrosia, 467 Elmwood Ave.
Remember when Ambrosia was this little lavender-hued diner? You'd duck in for an omelet with your slacker friends. Now, there's still a Greek travel poster in the ladies' room. But things are different.
The place has expanded, with a chic sidewalk patio. And Ambrosia even invites you to ask about its wine selection. You can drink wine on the Elmwood Avenue sidewalk, as people walk by, eyeing your Cabernet or Retsina with envy.
"Ambrosia is wonderful," Eoannou raves. "They have great Greek salads. They have great lamb. The feta omelets are to die for, to quote Tommy Burton, another lawyer."
The place also warrants a paean from Aylward. "Their lentil soup is great," he says. "Alexander has a great lamb dinner," he adds, talking about his 6-year-old son.
To be honest, we found that Ambrosia skimped in the all-important chicken souvlaki category. It was a modest bed of lettuce sprinkled with half-inch cubes of chicken. We couldn't keep from coveting our neighbor's Rhodes Pizza, a crusty concoction of artichokes, tomatoes and onions.
But that was OK, because we pigged out on appetizers. Meze, they call them. These treats hover in the $5 range, but for $8 or so, you can get a platter of three. With the warm, fluffy pita, it could easily feed two. There are gigantes, large lima beans baked in tomato sauce with "secret" spices. And skordalia, a salad of potatoes, garlic, olive oil and beets.
Best was the taramosalata (saying the word is half the fun), a fish salad with a blend of caviar. Not as salty as you'd expect - there's not much caviar, for better or worse - it was smooth and seductive, like mashed potatoes.
Mykonos, 516 Elmwood Ave.
This pocket-sized place has been around longer than one might think. Once, briefly, it was Pano's Too.
Cream of broccoli soup is a longtime Mykonos specialty. We had it 10 years ago and we had it last week, and it was exactly the same, heavy and creamy and tasty like the inside of a Banquet pot pie. (Don't laugh; this is high praise.) True, it has lumps of flour here and there, but at least that proves it's homemade.
The chicken souvlaki came with tzatziki sauce, and even though that yogurt/cucumber creation arguably belongs more to gyro than souvlaki, we wallowed in it. The heck with tradition.
In the diner food department, Mykonos soars. A scallops dinner arrives with deep-fried scallops. They'd been frozen, no doubt, but it was good truck-stop food. Especially when served, as it was, with a pile of unassuming French fries and the two de rigeur slices of doughy white bread. All hail America!
Acropolis Family Restaurant, 708 Elmwood Ave.
You have to cast back a long time to remember when this was the Captain's Table, with round tables and wide wooden chairs. Times change, and now it's got a more antiseptic look.
But Acropolis retains a charming ambience. We sat on the patio, and a big dog from next door kept sniffing through the railing at everyone's food. "Fritz, no," the waitress would tell him. How they kept Fritz from entering the patio was a mystery. He must be somewhat trained.
Acropolis is one good value. Everything's a little cheaper here, and they give you a lot of food. The chunks of beef in the gyro were perhaps a little overdone; except for the small pieces, they were chewy. But the required chicken souvlaki was loaded with meat, and the salad was jazzed up with olives and green pepper.
And by all means get the grape leaves! Only $3.50 buys a big platter of seven or eight, along with tomato slices and warm pita.
Pano's, 1081 Elmwood Ave.
Pano's used to be down the street, a tiny place with boothside jukeboxes featuring Greek music. Now it's bigger and slicker, with plastic seats and a crowded outdoor patio. Gone is the Greek music, although hovering near the register is a dour guy who could pass for a Greek ambassador. Nice touch.
As an institution, Pano's can awaken strange passions in people. One is Daryle Pompeo, a former Buffalonian who now works in a Florida stockbroker's office. Fifteen years ago, Pompeo would go to the old Pano's at all hours, slurp their now-discontinued orange shakes and annoy fellow diners by blasting a shrill jukebox song identified only by Greek letters that seemed to read "Rape Me Arkania." A visit to the new Pano's dismayed him. He moans: "I discovered Pano's to no longer be a mecca for drunken stooges seeking plaki but a yuppie-torium with sidewalk trattoria, waitresses under the age of 66 and a perplexing unwillingness to put orange juice into a vanilla shake."
Aside from the absence of orange shakes and Greek fish, though, Pano's hasn't lost its culinary touch. It gets our award for most amazing souvlaki - for $6, you get a healthy helping of thrillingly spiced grilled chicken with all kinds of creative trimmings, including red peppers, olives and, again, that tzatziki sauce. The Greek roasted potatoes tasted gently of herbs and olive oil.
The rice pudding is like Mount Olympus with nuts and raisins and aesthetic scoops of whipped topping. The baklava was thick and sugary as a doughnut.
Pano's gets a rave from Tina Griffin, a Greek-American Buffalo bartender whose maiden name was Pappas. She loves the souvlaki and also praises the spanokopita. "Theirs is very good," she muses. "It's my favorite place."
Plate Oh, 577 Forest Ave., close to Elmwood Avenue.
Here's a former Mighty Taco turned into a cute little eatery. It even has a new patio off to the side - and with nice chairs, too, not those ubiquitous $5 plastic numbers - and if you sit near the back, you're far from traffic. (You do, however, have to listen to trashy music by Journey and Shania Twain, piped from a small speaker overhead. Sigh for "Rape Me Arkania.")
The waitress shocked us by asking if we wanted whipped topping on our baklava. What, had she been into the ouzo? But the service was terrific and, in other ways, too, Plate Oh pleased. The gyro beef was a little chewy but heck, that was worth it, because it didn't taste frozen. Grape leaves were light and fragrant. And the Greek potatoes! They were so beautifully browned! (They were oilier than others we had, but that's the price you pay.)
A big chicken souvlaki boasted green peppers, red onion and cucumber. And Plate Oh's taramasalata - that lovely word again - was the comforting consistency of potato salad.
There was a dense, wonderful baklava and rich, comforting rice pudding, albeit minus the raisins the Towne threw in.
We were charmed by the occasional swallow hopping around on the patio floor. And the sea salt at the table was a cryptic but cute touch. It made us think of the blue Aegean.
Maybe it's not so far away, after all.