In a city with only one McDonald’s Playland, has Greek become the family cuisine of choice? Half the kids in this city have grown up with feta-doused fries and gyros omelets at diners like Voula’s, Pete’s Eggnest, and Costas Opa, and everyone with a child under the age of 5 knows about the pen at Vios where you can sequester your toddler long enough to toss back shots of red wine. Plaka Estiatorio may only have been open since March—and there’s no puzzle pile in sight—but Ballard families have embraced the restaurant as if it were doling out lollipops and Ritalin.
As I walked in for my first visit, four children under the age of 4—a perpetual-motion machine—were writhing and scribbling around the big table at the front. Before the hosts even had time to greet us, one of the toddlers choked on her pita, and her beleaguered mom had to rush her to the bathroom, napkin over the girl’s mouth while she retched it all up.
“How many in your party?” asked a server while we gaped, then he sped off to clear a table for us. The girl and her mother emerged from the back and returned to coloring at the table.
“How many of you are there?” asked a second server, and as we said “Three, but I think someone…,” she too rushed off. The plates were piling up on the counter, and the cooks, wearing Greek fishing caps, were beginning to lean over the counter.
Three seconds later, a third waiter came up: “Welcome! How many are you?” We just pointed at the first waiter, laying out plates and rolled napkins on the table next to the nursery school, and waiter number three swerved back into the fray as well.
Plaka, named after the famous Athenian quarter, is decorated more like a family room set up for a contract-bridge tournament than one of the sets from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. A pair of Corinthian columns in the entryway and a few patches of “exposed” bricks pasted on the walls provide the requisite Hellenic overkill. Wood tables, stained different colors, cluster almost as tightly as the family photos on the burgundy walls, and baskets of fresh fruit perch atop produce boxes stacked against the bottom of the wine cooler. The only thing that gives away the restaurant’s age is the lack of visible scuffing; the only restaurateur in Seattle who has managed a similar feat is Linda Derschang at King’s Hardware, Smith, and Oddfellows—and they’re so carefully composed I imagine her obsessively sanding a few extra millimeters away here and there just to get the lived-in look right.
If the space is tiny, the menu’s big—20 mezedes (small plates) and salads, a half-dozen dips, nine larger meat and pasta dishes. The first plate to be set down on our table was a single octopus tentacle, curled like a fern leaf around a single lemon wedge, the purple spotted with grillblack, the center milk-white and succulent. Next came a few links of loukaniko, a dense pork-leek sausage that was perfectly cooked but wanted more fat in the grind to keep the meat from tasting grainy. That was followed by grilled pita triangles with a plate of dips: a roasted-pepper puree with diced feta, tzatziki whose tang was softened by shredded cucumber, the fervent hit of salt and sea from a puddle of taramosalata (salted cod roe). A classic horiatiki salad—tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, pepper, feta, and olives, bound with a sharp lemon dressing—made June taste even closer to the heart of summer than the clouds outside suggested.
As we picked over the mezedes, two passing servers noticed that our pita-to-dip ratio needed to be readjusted, and suddenly we were fitting two extra plates of bread triangles into the mosaic. Our main waiter dropped by and noted the double bread plate with a genial shrug. What was a couple of extra triangles, when the tzatziki begged to be finished off?
Considering that a third of the customer base on my first visit was still learning to use a knife and fork, I hit Plaka closer to bedtime on my second visit and found the population skewed more toward the empty-nest and budget-date market segments. Just as in the first meal, the food was forthright, solid, often tasty: Beets stewed with fennel and their greens and splashed with vinegar to counterbalance their sweetness. Airy tyropita, its crust shiny with butter, whose holes were filled with chunks of mild sheep’s-milk cheeses. Two lamb souvlaki skewers pulled off the fire with their marinades still concentrated and their centers tender. And a dessert of theples—coils of dough, drizzled with cinnamon and just enough honey to leave a little for licking off the fingers—which made for the notionally sweet.
If I thought the Greek fries, dark brown and covered with white clumps of feta, were too limp, a friend raised on Dick’s loved them all the more for it. Greens braised down with lemon could have used a little less citrus, while the lemon-seasoned grilled chicken—actually, browned in the pan—could have used more (salt, too).
Seattleites take to Greek food as readily as to Italian, and though it’s no showcase for haute cuisine, Plaka is an ideal Wednesday-night destination—a place for a few small plates and a glass of red, or a bowl of pasta and some rice pudding. Waiter/customer hugging appears to be encouraged, and it was hard not to feel like we belonged to the Thanksgiving-afternoon swirl. At one point, the family patriarch, a handsome guy in his 60s with nigh-vertical Martin Scorsese eyebrows, ran out the door. My friend and I peered out the window to see if he’d caught some dine-and-ditchers or was planning to snag a passing fire truck, but he was merely helloing at two guys across the street, who stopped to engage in 100-decibel small talk. Soon after, his wife, in her bedazzled DKNY T-shirt, came along to pick up our empty dinner plates after we’d talked over them for a half-hour. “I’m still learning to do this,” she laughed as she gingerly stacked a few plates on one palm. We monitored their fate, worrying whether we should follow her with our wine glasses, until she disappeared into the kitchen.
Price Check Three dips $8 Beets $6 Tyropita $7 Octopus $9 Horiatiki salad $9 Grilled chicken $14