Parthenon Restaurant merges the best of old and new

The Parthenon Restaurant, which opened on the corner of Main Street and East Liberty 35 years ago, is known for its gyros.

In Peloponnese, Greece, blue—startling, Windex blue—crashes into white. Dry sky, kilned by a third-degree sun, combs ancient crags dusted with shale; offshore, Cathedral Agios’ gunmetal domes cap washed buttresses and walls. A Nafplio market awning—a tarp of blue and white stripes in tribute to the national flag—shades boxes of lemons, and splays of saints bracelets and knock-off Coach bags. Here, just as these color palette opposites collide, the old bleeds into new. The traditional, into freshly cut and constructed.

John and Steve Gavas get it. As owners of Ann Arbor’s Parthenon Restaurant, these Peloponnese natives pour blood and years into their food. They work hard to merge the filo-thin line between past and present.

“Most of our recipes are traditional, with many coming from my mother,” said Steve Gavas.

Since it first opened on the corner of Main Street and East Liberty 35 years ago, the Parthenon’s Greek- and Mediterranean-influenced cooking has earned generations of loyal customers, winning local competitions including this year’s “Best Place for Greek Food” Community Choice Award.

Why? Because we are looking for roots. We gravitate to the food and people that remind of us of who we are, where we come from and where we’re going. Greece is mythic that way—it churns up a wanderlust characteristic of Stephen Dedalus and even Odysseus himself.

Likewise, the food at the Parthenon comforts us. Chicken breast, marinated in olive oil and lemon; lamb shanks, tenderized until the meat slips off the bone; and wine, a decorative on every table, a drink to swill it all down.

Outside, plastered on white, its neon sign burns red in the dusk. Ceiling fans dissolve the brandy-made smoke from griddles of flaming cheese. Underneath the 10-plus AAA placards, baklava tempts in a plastic cake case. Line cooks, behind cafeteria glass, wield forearm-length knives and hack away at dangling, seasoning lamb torsos like sculptors on clay.

Meat, skewered on a vertical spit for gyros, fermenting grapes and feta, and good alcohol: this food is primal, tilled from the earth and made with the pride of the old world.

“Our food is homemade,” said Gavas. “We’re known, here, for our gyros.”

We can’t get enough of it. The Parthenon is a hybrid of the Cretan café—a six-tabled place whose floors are slicked with flakes of mica-like scales and oily water—and Americana pie diner, like our own Angelo’s. Moms with kids—kids who clap and squeal as brandy hits cheese grease—and Greek Orthodox priests alike come here. It’s more than the food.

It’s home, coupled with a need to hit the sea.

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