It is a rule of thumb in Los Angeles that any restaurant you want to go to is 20 minutes from where you are now. Tack on another 5 or 10 minutes and you could find yourself at the southern end of the Harbor Freeway in the '50s time warp of San Pedro, a small Midwestern town that has somehow found itself next to a harbor full of huge freighters.
Down what looks like Main Street on your right is Papadakis Taverna. Inside, the restaurant is bigger, brighter, more upscale and formal than you'd expect a taverna to be. A Tuesday night and the place is full. A tourist has thrown his suit jacket over the bust of Diana, or whoever the statue is next to his table. Zorba music, uncomfortably loud, is being piped in and you don't know how you're going to stand the noise--until you've had a glass or two of retsina.
One guest at your table won't drink retsina, thinks it tastes like diluted tree sap. It does, but you love it anyway. Eating Greek food without retsina or roditis or some such, you think, is only half the fun, and fun is definitely part of the program here. Witness the waiters. Led by the maitre d', they have formed a line and are doing a Zorba dance, snaking through the dining room. The maitre d' stops and, with his teeth picks up a wine glass from someone's table, tips back his head and lets the wine drain into his throat. Then he tosses his head and lets the glass fly into the air and crash to the floor where it's quickly swept up by a busboy who's been standing by with a dustpan and broom. This is floor show stuff, but you find yourself clapping along with everyone else in the room, encouraging him to kick higher, dance faster. His exuberance is contagious. He is dancing as if his life depended on your enjoyment, which in a way it does, since he and his brother own the place. As it says right on the menu, "God Bless America."
Even without--or, perhaps despite--the general frenzy, the food has put you in a good mood too. The menu is heavy on meat dishes--saddle of lamb, rack of lamb, skewered lamb, lamb chops and braised lamb, as well as veal filets with kasseri in pastry and basil sauce, baked sea bass, king crab leg in pastry with mustard sauce and other temptations. There's a good choice of appetizers, too, like filo pastries stuffed with cheese, dolmathes and octopus salad.
It's hard to decide what to have, but everything you try is good, some of it very good--especially the anginares (artichoke hearts with cheese baked in filo); the mousaka (a wonderful rendition, the miraculously ungreasy lamb spiced with just the right amount of cinnamon); the arni a la Papadakis (saddle of lamb, spinach and cheese in pastry). Even the desserts are delicious--walnut cake soaked in honey; custard pastry, baklava, all made on the premises, served with strong, muddy Turkish coffee. A white chocolate pie (not really Greek, the waiter admits, but made by a Greek in San Diego) is wonderful too.
You've brought with you a lusty Greek friend named Panayiotoula (and that's just her first name), who pronounces the general boisterousness and the cooking authentic. She loves the lemony-ness of the avgolemono soup; the not-too-buttery, delicate treatment of filo dough; the roast potatoes, which are almost as good as her mother's. She would have preferred more garlic in the tzatziki (a condiment of yogurt and cucumbers); finds the dolmathes bland; would like to see tomatoes stuffed with rice instead of sliced carrots on her plate; thinks the peanut and bearnaise sauces accompanying her charbroiled saddle of lamb a bit weird in a Greek place. But she's not complaining. She, too, loves the mousaka, anginares and arni a la Papadakis. "I'll bet," she says, "a lot of Greek people come here."
After a few days, your retsina hangover wears off and you're ready to be Greek again, this time at the Great Greek in the Valley. This place feels like a taverna--ouzo flowing, live music, a noisy spontaneity as diners join the waiters to dance in the aisles. On the walls are photos of every Greek actor who ever walked across a TV screen. A George Maharis-lookalike maitre d' greets you warmly, especially if you're a woman. The balalaika player makes music beautiful enough to make Zorba himself weep.
The dining here is less formal than at Papadakis, the menu more of a hodgepodge (pita bread, humous, a dozen ornate desserts--almost too vast a choice for its own good), everything a la carte. The appetizers seem to be their main strength--particularly the Greek salad, the spanakopita, a very garlicky tzatziki.
In both restaurants, you feel that these are less "real" places than desperate attempts to duplicate "the Greek experience," but after a while you don't mind. You're having too much fun.
Papadakis Taverna, 201 W. 6th St., San Pedro. (213) 548-1186. MasterCard and Visa. Wine and beer only. Sunday-Thursday, 5-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5-10 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$80.
The Great Greek, 13362 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 905-5250. Visa, MasterCard, American Express. Full bar. Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-12 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $25-$60.