When it comes to Greek restaurants in Broward County, though, it seems that conventions are tossed out along with broken bits of pottery. Here everything is -- but isn't -- a taverna. Sounds oxymoronic, I know, but let me explain. The textbook definition of taverna is a family-owned, countryside eatery serving traditional Greek foods, especially appetizers known as mezéthes (mezes for short); customers are often invited into the kitchen to see what's being prepared. But Taverna S'agapo in Hollywood is more like a combination of estatorion and bouzouki, with Greek music blasting and waiters dancing on the tablecloths; the bustling Greek Islands Taverna in Galt Ocean Village has elements of the psistaria but is closer to what New Jerseyans know (and treasure) as the classic diner; and Taverna Milos in Pompano Beach is actually a psarotaverna (a restaurant almost always located by the ocean and specializing in fish) that turns into a rowdy bouzouki on Saturday and Sunday nights.
Why the lack of regard for strict interpretation? Cultural expectation plays a huge role -- most Americans, at least those who have never been to Greece, seem to require a winking navel or two with a dish of moussaka. The Greeks who run these tavernas appreciate the differences but are wise enough to cater to our ignorance. Plus, let's face it, taverna's a helluva lot more recognizable and easier to pronounce than estiatorion or psistaria.
Then there's the influence of Taverna Opa, the risqué Hollywood restaurant and nightclub that has proven so popular that its owners will soon be opening locations in Fort Lauderdale and South Beach. Competitors who wanted a piece of that monetary pie debuted Taverna S'agapo in October only a mile or so north of Opa on North Ocean Drive. I'd call it a copycat crime -- everything from the waterfront setting to the booming Greek disco beats to the performing waiters is blatantly reminiscent of Opa -- except that the fare is unquestionably fresher and the service a tad nicer, which in my book are two mitigating factors.
If you want to party, hit S'agapo on a weekend night, when the expansive dock and waterside bar are flooded with like-minded imbibers. Weeknight evenings tend to be quieter, and the indoor seating that protects from cold breezes makes it more possible to navigate oven-fresh pita wedges around a plate of creamy tzatziki (cucumber-yogurt dip) or pungent skordalia (puréed potatoes with garlic). Both cold mezes are exceedingly well-prepared here; hearty noshers can order them on a sampler platter along with just-salty taramosalata (fish roe spread) and slightly smoky melitzanosalata (eggplant puréed with mayonnaise and vinegar).
Service is friendly, though not exactly speedy, so feel free to linger with the appetizers and sip from Boutari Lac des Roches ($24), which nicely counters the garlic that is a primary ingredient in these dips. That way, it's easier to appreciate milder entrées like lamb chops sprinkled with oregano or succulent grilled lemon chicken. I was especially happy with the cleanliness of the grill here -- my skewer of pork souvlaki was faultless, juicy and flavored not by charred bits of other people's meals but by its sidekicks of green peppers, onions, and tomatoes. Even the bed of rice pilaf tasted as if it had been steamed on the spot rather than pre-prepared and left to dry in a hotel pan.
Desserts, our server told us, are made daily by the grande dame who runs the kitchen, but she hadn't made enough galaktoboureko the day we stopped in. To make up for our obvious disappointment, the waiter brought a huge serving of excellent rice pudding, with kernels al dente and just enough cinnamon -- and I am a woman who doesn't like rice pudding.
I don't care much for the general atmosphere of these clubbier places, though. Both Opa and S'agapo seem to attract some unsavory characters; a lot of single, youngish men were sitting around with the management at S'agapo the night we dined, shirts untucked and boot heels propped as if rehearsing for a scene in The Greek Godfather. I'd rather plunk down money for moussaka at Greek Islands Taverna, a year-old establishment that makes no pretense about what it is: an efficiently run Greek eatery that, taken out of its modern South Florida context, might feature a fire pit in the middle of the foyer.
Even without an open fire and a spit, however, Greek Islands performs well. A main course of barbecued ribs rubbed with lemon, oregano, and olive oil has more tooth-pleasing texture than you'll find at Deep South barbecue joints, which sometimes boil the ribs to bits before sticking them on the grill. Here, the baby backs offer appropriate resistance; they are neither tough nor fatty. Ditto a starter of baked shrimp, splashed with the chef's "secret" sauce that had a slight licorice redolence, though we thought ten bucks for three of the plump jumbos was a bit high for the surroundings. A bigger bargain, if you're looking for a hot meze, is the saganaki, tangy kefalotiri cheese soaked with brandy and torched until the alcohol has burned off and the cheese has achieved a melting give (but not completely lost structure). I've had improperly timed saganaki more often than perfectly done ones, so it was a joy to find a waiter who understood this art.
Beyond tableside-toasted cheese, though, don't look for warm fuzzies at Greek Islands. Servers have a brusque, all-business game face, and chances are someone's waiting for your table. So dig in to the moussaka, a layered casserole of eggplant, potatoes, spiced ground beef topped with brown-tipped béchamel sauce, then move on to sticky, nut-stuffed baklava.
For a combination of stellar Greek fare and a superb party scene, tackle Taverna Milos in Pompano Beach. Don't be scared away by its Ramada Inn Beach Resort setting, either. If you discount the hotel-lobby furnishings, you can see how this place is all about Greece, from the beachside setting to the table-dancing until 5 a.m. on weekends to the salad bar filled with ice and fresh fish.
Choose from that "fish bar" to create your meal. A waiter whisked our choice of whole yellowtail snapper away to the kitchen even before we were done pointing. It emerged crisp, sweet, and wonderfully refreshing, touched with lemon. Chicken souvlaki is equally impressive, the chunks of poultry grilled quickly and precisely to a spice-perfumed finish.
Milos differs from its competition in a number of ways. The first one is the home-baked, sesame-seeded bread -- an entire loaf was delivered to our table. Unlike S'agapo and Greek Islands, Milos also offers a gyro (pressed lamb, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and tzatziki sauce) at dinnertime, which makes for a filling but pleasantly well-rounded meal. And mezes include items like crab cakes and spinach pie, though our order of these items never actually appeared.
In other ways, though, Milos is similar not only to S'agapo and Greek Islands but also to the dozens of tavernas that have been sprouting in Broward and Palm Beach counties. Service is earnest, though it might be a trifle inept (owing to the nervousness of our waiter, who was also catering to a supposed Greek mafia boss at the same time, we were told in the proverbial stage whisper). The music is lively. And the utter seriousness with which the kitchen handles its food pays homage to the ever-rising status of Greek cuisine in the United States. On its menu, Greek Islands Taverna notes that "Greek food is becoming fashionable because the world is recognizing how healthy it is." Gospel or no, it's reassuring to see South Florida, instead of lingering in the backwash, riding the crest of the wave.