Zenon Taverna in New York City's Greek enclave of Astoria got discovered almost as soon as it opened its doors in 1988. Its wood-beamed dining room is a cozy, vibrant space with sunsets, horizons and images of the real Cyprus beaming down on diners.
Stelios Papageorgiou; his wife Dora; and their three daughters – Angela, Constantina and Elena – work together to bring the warmth and hospitality they have come to be known for. (If you check out Zenon’s Twitter feed, you’ll also find the faces of two new additions to the family: Stella and Theodora.)
At Zenon Taverna, the spirit of Cyprus is in the food, not just the facade — Photo courtesy of Zenon Taverna
With the new populations moving into Astoria, it's gratifying to see that the We Heart Astoria blog recently listed Zenon Taverna among the places to take a crowd. In fact, there's a private room upstairs for parties with the same delicious food that's served in the dining room.
A brisk walk to local yet internationally known attractions like the Museum of the Moving Image, the Isamu Noguchi Museum and Socrates Sculpture Park make it a natural stop for enhancing a daytrip to Queens.
Mezes delight the eye and the palate — Photo courtesy of Zenon Taverna
This is a place to bring friends you love, because you share your food. Order 16 mezedes or mezes for $20.95 per person, and everyone will be happy and full.
Fresh pita bread is served warm, with freshly made olive bread in a basket.
Want to go native? Order an ouzo with ice. The anise-flavored aperitif from Greece and Cyprus complements the dishes on the menu: fried zucchini, the octopus, calamari and salads. Sip slowly; the high-sugar content fools first-timers.
Menu too big for you? Unlike many restaurants where the daily specials might just be leftovers, at Zenon Taverna, they are special dishes prepared with care, such as spring lamb and orzo on Fridays, or lima beans and Swiss chard or Kouneli Stifado or rabbit stew on Wednesdays or pastitsio (Greek lasagna) three times a week.
Traditional pastitsio is served on certain days at Zenon Taverna — Photo courtesy of Zenon Taverna
Soups: try the avgolemono, a chicken and lemon soup. Salads from beets to Cyprus salad are crispy, never laden with creams, butters, heavy sauces or salad dressings other than virgin olive oil and vinegar. This cuisine is good for you; it accommodates the lactose intolerant, the gluten-free, vegans and even pescatarians, too.
Leave room for the American lambs that find their way from Colorado, Ohio or Texas. And do arrive early on Sundays for the spring lamb. Listed as Kleftiko ($18.95), the large pieces of bone-in lamb are baked slowly in the oven inside a tent of parchment paper along with carrots, celery, onions and potatoes, until the lamb is tender, juicy and the veggies just a touch crispy.
Next are the spectacular sea monsters: calamari and octopus. Calamari and octopus are treated similarly: Charcoal grilled, the calamari is cooked briefly with oil, lemon and oregano or can be lightly battered and fried, while the octopus arrives with blackened edges and tender pulp under a glimmering coat of oil, vinegar and oregano.
Desserts arrive on a trolley, so you can see them and choose the size of portion you would like. Top them off with the silty-bottomed Greek coffee or Commandaria, a dessert wine exclusively made in Cyprus: a sister of sweet sherry and made in the foothills of the Troodos Mountains.
It will be hard going home.