At the edge of downtown Roanoke, in what is emerging as our medical center, Athens Corner Grill’s somewhat generic exterior might suggest an average Mediterranean sandwich shop. But step inside and you will find a more upscale and elegant restaurant offering. In addition to the expected sandwiches and salads, it features a surprising selection of well-executed traditional Greek specialties.
The standout appetizer for us was the excellent calamari ($11.95). The menu cautions it may take a few extra minutes, since they prepare each batch from scratch; it’s all worth it when the golden-brown calamari emerges, a nice mix of both rings and tentacles, sprinkled with a chopped salad of tomatoes, red onions and olives and served with a chunky house marinara and a thick — even pillowy — pita with a touch of smoke from the grill.
These same pitas are the base of their hearty Mediterranean sandwiches, which include gyros, vegetarian staples such as falafel, and exciting surprises such as a fish gyro and pork souvlaki. With no dedicated lunch menu, the sandwiches may seem pricey at first glance. However, each comes with a choice of salad, fries or a cup of soup, making them all satisfying platters.
The Athens gyro ($9.95), a loaded sandwich with beef and lamb gyro meat, tomato, onion, lettuce, feta cheese, the garlicky yogurt dressing tzatziki and french fries all wrapped up in a pita, was delicious, if a bit dry — it could have used a little more tzatziki. The grilled pork souvlaki had a nice smoky bite; served as a sandwich ($8.95) with tomato, onion, lettuce and tzatziki, it was a bit wet. Their tzatziki was creamy, cooling and mild, without an overt garlic bite. The Greek burger ($10.95) was a mix of Greek seasoned beef and lamb served open faced on a toasted pita with tomato and onions. It lit up with a little salt, and was a fine, if slightly uninspired, hybrid.
The soups were all very well done — the lentil soup was earthy and a touch sweet, and the fasolada, a Greek bean soup flavored with tomato, was hearty and well-balanced. The french fries were also a step above the ordinary, with a nice crunch from a light topping. In addition to standard Mediterranean sandwiches, they also have a nice selection of salads, classic deli sandwiches and burgers, making this a good choice for business lunches and other groups, particularly given their location on the medical end of downtown.
The falafel platter ($11.95) was about a half dozen, well-flavored, marble-sized chickpea fritters, made with less parsley and green herbs than other versions. It was also a bit heavier and moist — not as airy or light as this vegetarian classic can be. Entree platters include two choices of sides: either a side salad or cup of soup and a starch from rice, fries or, our favorite, the lemon potatoes: thick, almost neon-yellow potato wedges with a nice acidic bite.
The restaurant also offers more traditional baked Greek specialties, such as spanakopita, a flaky and delicious feta and spinach layered fillo dough pie ($15.95 as entree, also available as a $4.95 side); moussaka, a layered eggplant and ground beef classic; and pastichio, a Greek baked pasta with ground beef, tomatoes and a creamy bechamel sauce. Athens also offers more traditional dishes as daily specials, including stuffed peppers, stewed beef and grilled lamb chops. This menu is a nice compromise that relies heavily on the quicker, expected grilled Mediterranean favorites while offering a surprisingly large selection of traditional entrees from the Greek repertoire.
For dessert, we tried the delightful galaktoboureko ($5.95): a custard in a sleeve of fillo dough doused with a light honey sauce, light in texture, but rich and satisfying, especially with a cup of the ultra strong and sweet Greek coffee ($3.95).
Service is attentive, quick and professional, and the restaurant is already popular; at times, the acoustics can make it difficult to have a quiet conversation. Their understated but elegant and modern decor, as well as their full bar, makes this a good choice for both professional meals and for groups of friends or couples. In price and ambiance, the Athens Corner Grill is certainly a step above some of the other Mediterranean offerings in town; but their excellent interpretations of lesser-known traditional favorites, their convenient location to the hospitals and downtown and their full bar and service set them apart.