I've often been called a proponent of taking kids to restaurants, casual or otherwise, and I suppose I am something of an advocate for teaching our children to become good citizens of the dining community. That said, I have finally found a place where my wee ones will never be invited to accompany me: Taverna Opa in Hollywood.
That's not because the management at this Greek restaurant, located on the picturesque edge of the Intracoastal Waterway, forbids it or because the atmosphere suggests otherwise. On the contrary Taverna Opa has, since it opened in 1998, been touted as a great family restaurant where the Mediterranean colors are soothing, the music is festive, and the folk dancing is traditionally performed on top of the tables. With the songs at crystal-shattering pitch and so many patrons hoofing it on surfaces where knives and napkins also rest, obviously no one minds a tot or two making a fuss or mess. And on the recent evening that I dined, I saw more than a few babies, toddlers, and small children doing just that.
But had my own tykes been with me, I wouldn't have been able to clap along blithely to the beat. That's because my hands would have been busy shielding their eyes from what amounted to lewd and lascivious behavior that was not only tolerated but heartily encouraged by the management.
I'm not talking about the servers and hosts, who often throughout the evening linked arms and snaked their way throughout the two-tiered dining room or gracefully clambered on chairs and tables to shake it Greek-style. Indeed one such female staff member was an excellent and obviously trained Greek classical dancer, and some of the male servers... Well, let's just say if I had to choose a mate all over again, I'd go Greek, and I ain't talking about fraternities. But even though their movements were suggestive, they were still within the bounds of propriety.
Not so the yachtful of ladies -- and I use the word loosely -- who pulled up outside the restaurant at about 9 p.m. All of them were wearing white, most had bleached blond hair, and many had faux body parts so hyperbolic they brought to mind balloons and sharpened fork tines. Herded into the restaurant by a single gentleman -- again I use the term loosely -- they immediately made their way to a predetermined table, which we found odd because Taverna Opa doesn't accept reservations. Without pausing to order, most of them got up on the tables at once and started gyrating in twos and threes, rubbing against one another and flipping their hair, cheered on by the staff -- but not necessarily by the patrons.
I'm not suggesting that these ladies on the town were actually ladies of the evening. Nor can I assume anything about their backgrounds other than to say that I've been in enough strip joints to know a professional when I see one. But if these so-called impromptu dancers and their moves were even vaguely Greek, they were obviously from the Isle of Lesbos.
Instead I can merely apply the knowledge I've learned in the risqué establishments on South Beach (where exotic dancers are often hired to stimulate the most staid of diners), wonder at the expensive boat that carried them to the restaurant, and speculate as to why all the staff members seemed to know them but not one wanted to answer questions. "Are they regulars?" we asked our waiter. He smiled mysteriously and shrugged. "Does this boat come here a lot?" we queried the valet. He too smiled mysteriously and shrugged. "Is this boat hired or owned?" we wanted to know from a crew member who was securing lines. Mysterious smile. Shrug.
The inherent appeal of the dancing is important because Taverna Opa has built its reputation on being a spontaneously fun eatery, where the customers are often compelled to join in the festivities. But the truth is that the "fun factor" has often been used to excuse the restaurant's shortcomings. And when the entertainment seems so absent of innocence that it's both base and unsavory, Taverna Opa's faults become glaringly apparent.
Take the service. Although I don't mind efficiency, especially in this nightclub-type atmosphere where it's hard to hear and the crowds compel quick turnover, our waiter was brusque to the point of unpleasantness. When we took too long to make a decision about the handful of Greek wines, he walked away. While other servers ground the house offering -- chickpeas, olive oil, and an amount of garlic even Buffy would question -- for their customers, our waiter dropped it off without so much as a comment of instruction. And when we wanted to order an appetizer while we perused the extensive menu for our dinner choices, he adopted a bored stance and assumed, "Greek salad, right?"
Wrong, as a matter of fact. We wanted to sample several of the 30 or so hot-and-cold meze, perhaps something like scordalia (a spread of potatoes and garlic), the grilled lamb sausage, or the wood-grilled octopus. But rushed into making up our minds, we settled for familiar items like the melitzanosalata, a tangy, peppery grilled-eggplant purée similar to baba ghannouj and served with pita bread that was fresher and more appealing than the stale baguettes brought with the chickpeas. We also found a dish of tzatziki (cucumber-yogurt dip) to be a rich, finely chopped version. A hot starter of sea scallops covered with tomatoes and garlic was succulent, though we thought the two and a half scallops were a little chintzy. That is precisely the point where the fun, such as it was, ended.
Taverna Opa offers a compendium of nightly dinner specials, from which we gleaned a skewer of grilled shrimp. We were a little perturbed to discover that the medium-size shrimp had been grilled in their shells, a move that smacks more of kitchen laziness than it does of tradition. It also led to the cooks overgrilling the shrimp, which had a nice charcoal flavor but were mushy inside their casings. Another main course, roasted lamb, was a misnomer: The lamb was more like mutton, and the thick, rough chunks of dried-out flesh could have come from only a fully matured sheep that had as many miles under its hooves as the dancers had black roots in their hair.
Like such regular menu items as the moussaka and pastitsio, the lamb is served à la carte. However, our waiter, an aggressive up-seller, had asked me when I ordered it what I would like for my side dish. When I hesitated he informed me, "It comes with it." It didn't, but the bill did -- I was charged an extra $4.50 for the spinach-leek rice, which had very little spinach but a pleasant amount of soft leeks.
Had we known the waiter was an out-and-out finagler, I doubt we would have given him the satisfaction of ordering dessert. As it turned out, we didn't get much pleasure from that either. The galaktobouriko, a custard-filled pastry that's usually a favorite of mine, was rendered here as a thick, flabby slab of cake. But order it anyway; it's an appropriate metaphor for Taverna Opa: overblown, contrived, and not quite as authentic as its reputation leads diners to believe.
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