In our never-ending quest for the best restaurant experience, we often forget a nice, simple tradition. You find a place you like (perhaps close to home or office), make friends with the owners and staff, and continue patronizing the place for years to come. One should do it for a very good reason: on average, regulars have a better overall experience than occasional or one-time restaurant visitors.
I have my favorite neighborhood place, – it is a contemporary and traditional Greek restaurant called Mourayo, nestled between Dupont Circle and Woodley Park metro stops on Connecticut Avenue. We have been going to Mourayo for the past four and a half years. According to their website, the name translates as “safe harbor where fishermen moor their boats”.
Mourayo does not push the envelope in terms of cutting edge innovation; however, it can be credited with something more important, such as making authentic Greek food more accessible for the American palate. And that is great. People deserve to know that there is a world out there beyond gyros, Greek salad, and souvlaki, without being forced to be too adventurous, or without having to travel to Greece. And even little things, like Mourayo’s olive oil (which I believe is specially brought from their family’s farm in Greece), can be eye-opening. On a personal note, it was regular meals at Mourayo that inspired us to plan (and execute) a fantastic trip to Greece.
On Chowhound boards a discussion often arises as to whether a well-regarded restaurant should be able to do all the items on its menu equally well. My personal opinion is that it not a realistic expectation. Each restaurant has its own raison d’etre, something they are particularly proud of, which inspired them to open their doors in the first place. In any case, Mourayo certainly has its strengths and weaknesses. Over the years I have had a large number of fantastic dishes like sea urchin and beluga lentils, watermelon salad with caper leaves and barrel-aged feta, melitzanosalata (roasted eggplant appetizer), delicious lamb stew with orzo, saganaki in a clay pot with almonds and tomato sauce, yogurt soup with mint, perfectly cooked baby cuttlefish, etc., etc., etc. To be sure, I have also had some mediocre versions of grilled octopus and calamari, pita that was less than pillowy, and a couple of uninspired dips and lackluster entrees.
The dessert menu features a traditional lineup; the standout for me is probably the orange cake (Portokalopita). It also happens to pair beautifully with Metaxa Grand Fine :-). Their Greek yogurt which bears very little resemblance to the Greek-style yogurts found in most grocery stores is also not to be missed. It seems to me that every single retail brand has added a “Greek” yogurt to its product line… Here is an opportunity to try the real stuff (and this is not even the best example of its kind!). Of course, a non- or low-fat Greek yogurt is a total misnomer…
Food quality and deliciousness aside, I think it is critical to consider some of the other criteria that help form one’s overall impression of a restaurant. I am talking about such things as ambiance, seating arrangements (physical comfort), staff (friendly, knowledgeable?), location, selection (breadth of offerings and variety), and familiarity (which, as we know, breeds content). Often, those other factors outweigh the lapses in consistency and other minor grievances by a long shot.
There is something special about going into a restaurant where you know the maitre d’, the owners, most of the wait staff, and the bartender. And yes, we have “our” table.
That is why, even when the restaurant is not totally on top of its game, sitting at “our” table with a glass of wine or ouzo and Gavros Marinatos (anchovies), Fava Santorini (which, incidentally, is one of those false cognates, and is not fava but yellow split pea dip), or any other favorites, invariably takes me to my “happy place”. It can be described as a very light, happy, food & wine-induced daze, which makes all the minor annoyances and big worries go away, at least temporarily. I think perhaps, inner peace is ultimately what I am after in all of my food experiences…