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The word burst from my lips as flames shot two feet into the air from a square of cheese and our waitress jumped back to avoid having her eyebrows singed off. My brother looked at me quizzically; given my usual aversion to dining stunts, I was just as surprised as he was that I'd just obliged our server by yelling something hokey. So surprised, in fact, that we were both momentarily distracted from the fire raging in front of us.
We were at The Athenian in Aurora, a freestanding restaurant in front of a suburban strip mall. The owners, Angie and Tom Stathopoulos, gave the former Pizza Hut a makeover from the outside in, erecting pillars on the patio and littering the dining room with potted plants and little statues, and swathing the accent pieces with the obligatory blue and gold that denotes Greek pride. The entranceway is flanked by a cutout Italian chef holding a chalkboard bearing specials. The banquet room is called the Room of the Gods.
Despite the kitsch, or maybe because of it, the Athenian is homey, and it's run like a home under the watchful eye of Angie, who is tiny — and fierce. And fiercely charming as she welcomes return diners back with the proud air of a parent gathering her well-loved children around the dinner table.
Angie and Tom were born in Greece, and they belong to a vast circle of restaurant-owning relatives who relocated to Denver. Angie's parents owned the Peak in Aurora for years before passing the restaurateur torch to their four children. Two of those children are the Kallas brothers, who own Greek-Mexican-American Greeks Gone Wild and meaty Steakhouse 10. Angie's third brother runs Undici, which serves up southern Italian fare from high-ceilinged digs on Hampden.
Before opening the Athenian ten years ago, Angie and Tom ran a host of other eateries. Most served a combination of Mexican, American and Greek fare, like Neighbors, which was in Northglenn, and the Athenian Cafe, on South Broadway. At Tom & Angie's, they served just breakfast and lunch; at Mark's Hideaway in Northglenn, they experimented with owning a bar. Their restaurant experience stretches back more than 25 years, and they've incorporated all of that experience into the Athenian, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Angie's hired some powerful women to wait the tables, and they actively participate in your dinner, demanding that you punctuate flames and toasts with "Opa!" and engaging you in conversation throughout the meal. They're not here to just wait on you; they're here to get to know you — and it's almost impossible to leave the Athenian without divulging some kind of personal information to the staff. In return, they'll share tips: the secret to a dish, where to buy one of the Greek wines on their list. And when it comes time to order, what they say goes. After I surrendered and let them call the shots, I realized that they rarely err in their recommendations.
"I will bring you wine," my server said forcibly when I sat down for my very first meal at the Athenian. Well, okay, I guess I was having that. A Greek moschofilero was soon before me, a crisp summer white that turned out to be a perfect pairing with the saganaki, that flaming cheese that was tart and sharp like yogurt, with a paper-thin brown crust barely holding the oozing cheese within. I've ordered that cheese on every return trip, but it's never tasted better than when paired with that glass of wine.
The same coercion was applied to my entree order. "You will have a platter for two," she said, eyeing my brother and me. "Like the Chef's Special. Or the Mediterranean pastas."
I didn't want the pasta. I wanted Greek food. I haggled with her for a minute as she regarded me firmly and then shrugged. "Fine, you will have the Chef's Special. But the pasta is really good." I shut the menu and let it roll.
While Angie's domain is the front of the house, Tom oversees the kitchen, and from it he turns out an eclectic menu rooted in Greece that expands into the greater Mediterranean and, at breakfast and lunch, into America, with omelets, biscuits and gravy, and chicken-fried steak.
On that first visit, we stuck with the Greek. Our server had allowed us to order two appetizers, and the spanakopita, delicate triangular pastries filled with creamy spinach and cheese, were so flaky that they practically crumbled in my fingers when I picked them up. That same flaky pastry was wrapped around sharp feta for the delicious tiropitas. Then came the trough-sized Chef's Special, with souvlaki, kabob, gyro, meatballs and dolmades, plus calamari and a little pile of kalamata olives — and of course, our server was right; it was a good way to sample the Athenian's offerings. The souvlaki was a favorite, the chunks of well-marinated pork so tender that I later ordered a souvlaki plate so I could get more of the meat and fries, fat strips of potato sprinkled with paprika and plenty of pepper. The gyro was another winner, crisped shavings of pungent, spit-roasted lamb, meant to be topped with tzatziki — cool yogurt full of chunks of cucumber — and eaten with pita. The meatballs were spicy, dense and a little dry, but they livened up with more tzatziki. And the chicken kabobs, which can often be boring, were juicy and smoky and deeply satisfying.
And then there were the absolutely perfect dolmades: tangy marinated grape leaves hugging al dente rice, a perfect bite that invited another perfect bite. I wished there were more of them on the platter. Tom must be making those fresh all day, every day to prevent the bite-sized appetizers from getting too starchy. I could write a love letter to them. No, really.
Venturing out into the menu's other cuisines isn't necessarily a mistake, but I haven't found any of those dishes as interesting as the ones inspired by Tom and Angie's home country. I finally succumbed to my server's pasta recommendation and ordered a plate of spaghetti with Greek sausage one night. Although the pasta was perfect, loaded with zesty tomato sauce and fiery chunks of sausage, I found myself eyeing my dining companion's medium-rare lamb chop with no small amount of jealousy. And while the brunch omelets weren't bad, they were still just eggs enveloping feta, tomatoes, onions and green peppers, needing a little salt and maybe some paprika, which is liberally used on many other offerings.
Portions here are enormous, and all entrees are served with a choice of soup or salad. Those complimentary starters are the weakest part of the meal: salad made with bagged, pre-mixed lettuce; lemon-and-rice soup that needs more lemon and less cooking time to prevent the rice from breaking down into mush. The servers will all insist that you stuff yourself, prompting you to eat just a little bit more until you've cleaned your plate.
After a feast like that, dessert might seem like overkill. I nearly always want a sweet finish to my meal, though, even if it's just a bite — and just a bite is all you need of the desserts here. The baklava, flaky layers of phyllo dough soaked in honey layered with almonds, is bound together so solidly, a very little goes a long way. And while the loukoumades, airy balls of doughnut bathed in honey and cinnamon, are served by the half-dozen, one is enough.
The end of a meal at the Athenian brings complimentary ouzo, a welcome digestif. And then Angie sends you waddling back out into the world with a firm, loud, motherly declaration to come back soon or she'll be worried. She shouldn't worry, though. You're part of the family now. You have to come back.