The wholesome, heart-healthy benefits of the Mediterranean diet have been touted and exploited for decades. This may account for the ever-growing popularity of Greek restaurant food in North America. Whether you believe this to be true or not, a perfect location to do some field research of your own is Athena Restaurant in St. Augustine, FL
When you step through the door of the restaurant, what greets you is a simple, unassuming space with an arched ceiling and murals of St. Augustine landmarks on the wall. When your senses wrap themselves around your meal, however, the ordinary becomes extraordinary. Owner George Chryssaidis, has been utilizing the combination of love for traditional Greek fare and an abundance of business savvy for 15 years in order to see to that.
For a small town, population approximately 13,000, St. Augustine had enough to see and do for us to have worked up a good appetite for some comfort food at the end of the day. It was the perfect scenario for traditional Greek cooking.
For our appetizer, we shared some saganiki, Greek cheese flambéed with 150 proof grain alcohol until it melted on to a metal plate. Once the impressive pyrotechnics were over, we settled down to savor every bite of the cheese, which was served with pita.
The cheese had a citrus-like tang that complimented its natural saltiness. The texture was slightly chewy on the outside from the flambéing and from melting to the plate. The inner layer, however, was soft and smooth.
For his entree, my husband chose the combo, consisting of pastitsio, moussaka and spinach pie.
The pastitsio was a baked dish with a bottom layer of short tubular pasta, topped with a delectable ground beef mixture subtly infused with cinnamon. The crowning glory was a thick, satiny custard that added additional texture and flavor to the dish.
The spinach pie was packed with a copious amount of luscious cheese, encased in a crisp phyllo crust. So flaky was the crust, I thought the recording I had made for my notes had a crackle on it. What I was hearing was my husband cutting into his pie.
It is difficult for me to be accurate regarding the moussaka, since this is not one of my favorite Greek dishes. My husband, who orders moussaka every chance he gets, found it on the bland side.
I ordered the gyro plate, which was attractively arranged with a generous mound of meat, a pile of Greek salad, a small cup of tzatziki, a stuffed grape leaf and pita. This was everything I love about Greek food on one plate, and it didn’t disappoint.
The gyro meat was moist and tender, with an intoxicating breath of oregano. The salad was fresh, and had everything one would expect, but there was something about the dressing that took it to a new level. Perhaps it was the Frixa olive oil George imports from Greece and uses in all his dishes.
Although the meat and salad took center stage, the tzatziki complimented the flavor of the meat, and the grape leaf turned in an excellent performance as co-star with its creamy rice filling, somewhat reminiscent of risotto.
Athena’s menu is moderately priced, and includes a wide assortment of Greek dishes, and offers a selection of pastas, chops, steaks and seafood, along with a respectable wine list.
Our portions were large, and we would have done well to have shared an entrée as well as the appetizer. Then we might have had room for Athena’s tempting baklava for dessert.
George grew up in Frixa, a small Greek village for which his olive oil is named. But he had big plans and dreams, so in 1981, George found himself in Buffalo, New York, washing dishes for a living.
Through hard work and street smarts, George was soon able to open a small restaurant serving breakfast and hot dogs. By the time he and his Italian wife, Paula arrived in St. Augustine, George had worked in Minnesota and North Carolina, and the restaurant business was in his blood. “I like to cook, because I like to eat, said George, and feeding St. Augustine’s hungry tourists and locals is what he now does best.
The first thing George did upon his arrival in St. Augustine was to buy Athena from his uncle. He immediately saw the potential in the location, from both a business and personal perspective. Situated in the center of St. Augustine’s Historic District,, there was no shortage of local and tourist traffic, and his then seven-year-old daughter could easily walk to the Catholic school.
Once he had Athena up and running, George expanded and diversified. Georgie’s Diner — serving breakfast and lunch – opened in 2006, and Alcazar in 2010. Located in the Lightner Museum a fascinating collection of collections, Alcazar had been under previous ownership. When George bought the restaurant, he proceeded to change everything about it. Today, Alcazar serves an eclectic menu for lunch and twice-monthly dinners. As with Athena and Georgie’s Diner, Alcazar is a brilliant success.
In late 2015, George opened Romeo’s Cafe next door to Athena. This restaurant is operated by two of Paula’s nephews, and covers the Italian side of the heart-healthy trifecta. Perhaps, if George opened a Spanish tapas bar on Athena’s other side, St. Augustine would have the perfect mediterranean progressive dinner, with only a few steps to walk between courses.
George has little time these days to do any of the cooking, but his chef prepares all the Greek specialties from family recipes handed down from George’s uncle. But why cook when you have so many delicious choices? Since George still likes to eat, his routine is to have breakfast at Georgie’s, lunch at Alcazar and dinner at Athena. This also presents an efficient way to do regular quality control.
As much as possible, George ensures the utmost freshness in his food by purchasing locally grown produce and locally caught seafood. The Frixa Olive Oil, however, is imported from his family’s olive groves in Greece. The Koroneiki olive bearing trees can be traced back 1,000 years as having belonged to George’s family, and only produce olives for oil production. (An olive tree can live for 2,000 years,” said George, “but they start slowing down after about 500 to 600 years.“
More than 20 quarts of Frixa are used every day to prepare the food. George also sells his olive oil to the public. He insisted on sending us away with a bottle of Frixa and a jar of my favorite olives, We have enjoyed both at home, and the sharp, fruity flavor of the oil is truly exceptional. In fact, what George gave us as a parting gift was yet one more reason to return to Athena on our next visit to St. Augustine.
14 Cathedral Place
St. Augustine, FL, 32084(904) 823-9076
Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner: Sunday-Thursday 7AM to 9PM; Friday and Saturday 7AM-10PM.
Disclaimer: We were generously hosted by Athena Restaurant, however, all opinions are, as always, entirely my own.
Penny Zibula is a freelance travel writer and blogger based in New Bern, NC. Follow her travel adventures at Six Legs Will Travel.