Sticking out like a sore thumb at the corner of Main and Liberty is Ann Arbor’s decaying classic, the Parthenon Restaurant. What puzzles and amazes about this seemingly unremarkable establishment is its longevity. Brothers John and Steve Gavas opened it here back in 1975.
The fading paint of the restaurant’s teal and cream façade, with a sign advertising gyros, fine Greek foods and cocktails, indicates that any aspirations of grandeur are long gone. There’s nothing shiny or new about this place.
The reasons I chose the Parthenon as the location of my last food column are twofold. First, I’d never been there before and I was curious. Second, I was hankering for some good Greek food.
While Detroit has it in spades in Greektown, Ann Arbor is lacking in places to get a good saganaki, the ever-popular Greek flaming cheese dish. So I dragged Sharon, the fearless leader of The Michigan Daily’s Arts section, downtown for lunch on Friday in search of a last hurrah.
Everything inside was decorated in muted blues and creamy whites. Walking by a barrier made of stacked glass bricks, our waiter seated us at one of the five or so booths lining a wall with windows. We passed pictures of famous Greek architecture and plaster reproductions of vases. Above our table and the other booths hung a snaking fake grapevine. This all could’ve been cheesy, but it was actually quite cute and cozy. In the back, a large family enjoyed a lively lunch. We made our way through the menus slowly. The waiter didn’t pressure us.
Finally we decided on the saganaki made from kasseri cheese. The waiter yelled “Opa!” and lit the plate dramatically. Flames flew high above us — purple, then blue, then finally orange. It was the best and most theatrical part of our meal, hands down. In the flambéed crust, flavors danced together elegantly. The taste was sour and subtle all at once. The dish came with a basket of ambiguous white bread that we barely touched. The bread is unnecessary — this cheese stands alone.
The menu at Parthenon is extensive, offering an array of Greek and Mediterranean dishes. I’d been warned that the portion sizes were large, but was relieved to find they had a half-order of their moussaka available for lunch.
The restaurant’s take on moussaka missed the mark a bit. The béchamel sauce was splendid, but the pieces of potatoes were too thick-cut, preventing the lovely layered feel you usually get when you fork into this dish. Sharon had the vegetarian version. We were both pleased, but underwhelmed.
After two courses, we were stuffed. But alas — we had to try to the baklava. We ordered one to split. The waiter delivered it on two plates, divided without asking. The pastry before us was perfection. Flaky layers of crisped phyllo dough gave way to syrupy filling flecked with nuts and goodness. This was fantastic baklava. Totally worth pushing through the fullness we felt before.
All and all, the experience was pleasant. At $11 each, the meal wasn’t bad for two courses and a dessert. I was glad I finally went inside, having passed it many times these last four years. The food wasn’t excellent, but we gave it the old college try.
In the end, all the places I’ve gone to during my time in Ann Arbor deserved that “try.” The ones that are great are that way because of the food, but also because of my memories of them. There is a reason some of us know the inside of our favorite coffee shop better than we know the inside of our bedrooms. It’s because that’s where we do our living.
Twenty years from now, you might look back and realize that some of your best times took place at Pizza House at 4 a.m. biting into an order of cheesy bread. Perhaps you’ll remember slurping on a cup of soup from Le Dog, saving the sauerkraut dripping from your Reuben at Zingerman’s or having a Collider at Rod’s during a rough moment.
Waiting for breakfast at Angelo’s, sampling the beer at Ashley’s and stepping over the threshold of Dominick’s when you were finally old enough not to get turned away — these are the things we will not forget.
I’ve spent a great deal of time exploring the local cuisine this place has to offer. I’m so glad I did. It’s part of the reason this town is so special. Stay tasty, Ann Arbor.
— Managing Arts Editor Sharon Jacobs did not edit this article.