By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Hang an exclamation mark over Athens Market Taverna, where magnificent Greek meals correspond to high doses of hospitality within a historic building that used to be the Senator Hotel.
Located on the peaceful west side of Horton Plaza, seemingly a world apart from Downtown’s bustling restaurant scene, first-time customers can potentially encounter a convivial hug by owner Mary Pappas. Repeat visitors definitely will.
Pappas is a consummate host who does what so many restaurant owners fail to do: She mingles habitually with guests and loves sharing stories about her dynamic life. It’s as though she’s throwing a sleepover in her own house while armed with some of the best dolmades, pastitsio and moussaka you’ll find in San Diego.
She speaks often of her father, who ran a restaurant in Greece before handing down many of the classic recipes you’ll find here, despite the fact none of them exist on paper.
“We never write anything down, even though my father was a very fussy chef,” she said.
The “recipes” are instead based on heart, soul and technique, as proven with a starter of ridiculously delicious grape leaves (dolmades) stuffed with ground sirloin and rice. The surprise element was a sensational egg-lemon sauce draping them, a mouthwatering addition I’ve never encountered in other versions of the dish.
Among Pappas’ most engaging tales is how she bought the business from her aunt 41 years ago, when Athens operated primarily as a produce and grocery market fronting a small dining room at 414 E St.
Several years after arriving to San Diego from Greece on a student visa, Pappas won a car in a raffle held at St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church on Park Boulevard. But she immediately cashed it in to buy out her aunt with the intention of making enough profits to attend law school.
“It turned out that once I was in the business, I decided this was my calling. Now, all these years later, here I am,” she said with the passion of new restaurant owner.
Pappas soon phased out the market while building up the restaurant. She moved to her current location in 1985 because of redevelopment to the former building.
Gregarious and animated, she knows practically everyone who walks through the door, and visa versa, from politicians and judges to business owners and fellow Downtown residents. Even young children delight over her presence, as we witnessed the night of our visit.
In earlier years she befriended the late Elizabeth Montgomery, who dropped in nightly for a meal while her husband, Robert Foxworth, performed in “Antony and Cleopatra” at the Old Globe Theatre.
“She loved everything on the menu,” Pappas recalled.
Bob Hope was also a patron, as was Telly Savalas, whose photograph is displayed in an antique hutch inside the restaurant’s larger dining room, showing Pappas sitting playfully on his lap.
Cocktails, beer and wine — the latter including a few obscure Greek labels — set the stage for Athens’ white-linen fare. Arches, pillars and glass chandeliers flow elegantly throughout two dining rooms, one of which features a sizable central bar. Hanging on some of the walls are framed newspaper and magazine articles, several decades’ worth applauding the restaurant’s cuisine, if not the vivacious Pappas herself.
For this reviewer and his companion, the cuisine was like “food for the gods,” a description I’m stealing from a 1990 Gourmet Magazine article about the restaurant, because it still fits.
After the outstanding grape leaves, we tried mini servings of the menu’s three soups — herby lentil, lemony avgolemono, and white bean with veggies, which Pappas and her longtime chef, Chuy, made by accident a few years ago when they added too much water to a lima bean stew recipe. The result is most comforting.
“My dad always said that if the soups in a restaurant are tasty, then most of the dishes will be too,” Pappas said.
Indeed, everything that followed continued wowing us.
Imported kefalograviera cheese is used for the saganaki, a favorite Greek appetizer that’s set aflame in brandy at the table, and then doused with generous spurts of fresh lemon.
Tangy and buttery, Pappas showed us how to eat it the right way. Instead of lopping the melted cheese directly on top of the accompanying bread pieces, it’s better to scoop out the innards, almost down to the crust, and then spoon the cheese into the resulting pockets for a less doughy and more manageable outcome.
We passed on the grilled baby octopus, a relative newcomer to the menu that ranks as a top seller. The classic dishes hailing from papa Pappas interested us the most, such as the fresh spanakopita constructed with ultra-delicate filo pastry, plus the Horiatiki Village salad, considered the “original Greek salad” using fresh tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, onions, feta cheese and kalamata olives. Its authenticity is achieved here with a near-invisible dressing of olive oil and oregano.
From the entrée list, the pastitsio (Greek-style lasagna) flaunted a superb pudding-like layer of béchamel sauce set atop ground sirloin and tube pasta. We tasted allspice, clove and nutmeg in what was the best preparation of the dish I’ve ever encountered.
The mint and garlic beef meatballs were also divine, and ditto for the slow-roasted lemon chicken, a half bird yielding moist tender meat beneath crackly, flavorful skin. It’s served in thin tomato jus with rice and tender green beans.
Except for the savory beef sirloin tips (stifatho), which tasted more Midwest-American than exotic-Greek, the food hit our palates with variant, soothing flavors that run much deeper compared to meals you’ll find in casual Greek diners. Even the baklava and custard we had for dessert carried a little something extra in terms of spices and lemon hiding in the honey.
“Greek food is the best of Italian, Turkish and French cooking combined,” said Pappas, before hugging the next group of incoming diners accustomed to the lovable, social experience she creates, in what I’d agree is one of San Diego’s most illustrious restaurants.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.