A 6:30 dinner date is a bit early for me, but the idea of a family-style dinner at Papa Cristo, the taverna attached to the soulful Greek market C & K Imports, was too much to resist. Held on Thursday nights, the "My Big Fat Greek Family-Style Dinner" is usually a sold-out event and reservations are a must.
In the parking lot behind the restaurant, a grapevine twines up one wall and someone has lovingly planted corn, Mediterranean herbs and flowers in big pots. The entrance is through a storeroom painted with murals of Greek village life and stacked with sacks of flour. Past the deli with its rows of olive oils, honey and jams, Greek wines and other groceries is a big whitewashed room with long tables set out to accommodate the guests.
The manager stands at a table offering tastes of half dozen Greek wines, the wine tasting portion of the evening. "Here, try this," he says, pouring a little fragrant white wine from the Peloponnesus called Moschofilero into a plastic thimble. "This one is called Hercules," he says, but oddly enough, it's light. I'm having fun catching up on modern Greek wines, not a retsina among them. And they're all available at retail prices, most in the $10 to $20 range.
By 6:45, the place is mobbed and we take our places at one of the long communal tables, next to a couple on a date and three middle-aged women who are intrigued by Greece. One table over is what looks like four generations of a family celebrating someone's birthday. There are Greeks here, sure, but also just fans of Papa Cristo's or folks from the neighborhood recently christened the Byzantine-Latino quarter.
"Pace yourself," the manager warns, "there's a lot of food." He's not exaggerating.
First out is taramosalata, a smoked fish roe dip, then Cristo's smoky baba ghannouj and tzatziki to eat with fresh pita bread. The meze continue with flaky spanakopita, rice and meat-stuffed dolmades, oil-slicked olives and Greek salad with toasted pita, all of which I've tried from the deli counter and liked.
The wine is flowing and everyone is visiting back and forth. I, unfortunately, haven't paced myself and could stop right now, but there's more: platters of roasted lamb and chicken seasoned with lemon and oregano. The flavor takes me back to Greece, but I wish they'd cooked the meats a little less -- the plastic knives are simply not up to the task. The roasted potatoes and green beans are earthy and good, though.
I've wandered back to do a little grocery shopping when the clerk tells me, "Hurry, the dancer is just warming up." The price is $18.95 per person, plus tax and tip, dessert and coffee, and you get entertainment too?
Sure enough, the glaring fluorescent lights overhead are dimmed, and out comes a gyrating belly dancer in red. She's a little skinny for a belly dancer, but game, and soon diners are getting into the spirit of things, tucking bills into her waistband or getting up to dance along. The kids are not quite sure what's going on, but it looks like fun.
Dessert? Sure. Why not? Who can resist baklava?
Not me. And not anybody else here either. By the time the coffee comes around, the couple behind me are smooching. Could a Big Fat Greek Wedding be in their future?
Papa Cristo's Greek Restaurant
Where: 2771 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Family-style dinner 7 p.m. Thursdays (wine tasting 6:30 p.m.). Valet parking.
Cost: $18.95 a head, plus tax and tip; beverages extra
Info: (800) 732-3212; (323) 737-2970; fax (323) 737-3571; www.papacristo.com