Weekends, always vital to the restaurant business, have assumed an outsized importance in the COVID-19 pandemic.
At Zorba’s Fine Greek Cuisine in the Northeast Heights, the server told me that the take from early in the week wasn’t enough to cover the costs of running the place. Only a busy Friday had improved the outlook, albeit slightly, she said.
Now it was Saturday, and things looked promising. A couple of parties dined inside, just a few feet away from that ubiquitous feature of Greek restaurants: a wall covered with a trompe l’oeil painting. A couple more parties sat on the patio, and a steady stream of people filed in to pick up takeout orders. At the front door, the manager patiently explained to a man why he couldn’t enter without a mask.
With 10 years in business and an experienced management team, Zorba’s is better set up to survive than many restaurants in town. It has a clean, attractive space indoors and a shaded patio out front, as opposed to some tented-over parking spaces. The location, in a shopping center between Il Vicino and Grassburger at Montgomery and Juan Tabo NE, draws lots of traffic.
The Counelis family of Olympia Café fame opened Zorba’s in 2010, breaking the monopoly that Mykonos at Eubank and Juan Tabo had on Greek dining in the area. The menu is a little more modest than the one at Mykonos. You won’t find a $38 rib-eye here – just hearty, stick-to-your-ribs stuff such as meats on skewers served with garlicky, paste-like dips and casseroles layered with cheese and ground beef. Working your way through these dishes, you can almost hear a Greek grandmother somewhere saying, “Eat, eat! You’re skin and bones!”
Appetizers are mostly in the $5-$10 range, with a sampler available for $17.95. The skordalia ($6.95) makes for a promising start to the meal, the sublimely silky whipped potato and garlic dip served with pillowy wedges of pita and a generous helping of olives and peppers. Less successful was a bland bowl of avgolemono soup ($5.25), the lemon barely discernible.
Platters make up the bulk of the dinner menu. The Alexi’s platter ($16.95) showcases several of Greek dining’s greatest hits: moussaka, spanakopita, gyros and dolmas, served with a small salad and roasted potatoes or rice pilaf.
Zorba’s version of gyros was the best part of the assortment. Paired with the tzatziki sauce, the thin slices were ideal for folding into a piece of pita.
The rest of the platter was a mixed bag. The moussaka was well balanced, the ground beef bringing some body to the layers of potatoes and meltingly soft slices of grilled eggplant. On the downside, the filo dough was overrepresented in the spanakopita, leaving it dense and tough, and the lemony, grape-leaf-wrapped dolmas were a bit mushy.
Seafood choices include a grilled sea bass fillet ($17.75) and a seafood platter ($18.95) made up of grilled shrimp, calamari strips and the catch of the day – in this case, sole – over rice and broccoli. All three seafood components tasted fresh, although the breading on the calamari could have been crisper and the broccoli had been cooked to almost to the point of liquefaction.
The seven desserts on the menu include works of fusion such as baklava cheesecake alongside such classics as the custard pie galatoboureko ($4.25), which has been made in Greece for thousands of years. Zorba’s version is a big, honey-kissed block with a hint of citrus. It’s a fitting, if slightly dull, close to the meal.
The time from ordering to picking up was about 25 minutes. The server did an inventory of my order at the counter before she sent me off – a first for me since I switched to (mostly) takeout back in March. The gesture was much appreciated, as I know well the pain of unpacking food at home and discovering that something is missing.
Simple measures like that mean a lot these days, especially when your encounters with restaurant staff are so fleeting. It’s a sign that while Zorba’s is struggling, like so many restaurants in town, it hasn’t given up the fight.