Alongside entrees like dolmathes, The Continental also serves a variety of Greek pastries. Photo by Joshua Bessex
Walking into Costas Greek Restaurant on the corner of Northeast 47th Street and the Ave, I feel remiss in not bringing a machete. The place is a jungle; some large plant towers over the entrance, acting as a kind of living chandelier. Hanging vines with broad, green leaves frame the cash register in front of the door. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpse what appears to be a mutant clover, grown freakishly huge.
Walking north on the Ave, it’s impossible to reach Costas without passing The Continental Restaurant & Pastry Shop, another Greek place located on the same block, on the same side of the street, just three doors down.
The Continental, now run by the Lagos family, was here first, taking up residence in 1967.
According to Dionysios Bekris, my waiter at Costas, his family ran The Continental jointly with the Lagos family back in the day. He wasn’t clear on all the details, but at some point the families parted ways. His family opened a restaurant in Lake City for a while, but moved back to the U-District in 1975 to open Costas. Now, they are separately run — two Greek joints independent of one another, barely 200 yards apart.
I ordered dolmathes — grape leaves stuffed with lean ground beef, anise, mint, and rice ($10.95) — at Costas that night. On a separate occasion, I tried the same dish, for the same price, at the Continental. The differences between the two entrees speak volumes about the restaurants. At Costas, it’s served with roasted potatoes; at the Continental, it’s served with fries. At Costas, it’s garnished in a tangy lemon sauce; at the Continental, it comes unadorned. At Costas, the presentation is better, but the grape leaves are grittier and the filling less flavorful. But what The Continental can’t match in Costas’ impeccable aesthetics, it makes up for in sincerity.
Costas’ ambiance mirrors the presentation of my dolmathes: very polished. The walls are covered in large paintings; one features an arrangement of fruit, while several others depict ancient Greek cities. The frames look expensive.
If you look to your right as you enter The Continental, you’ll see a large tourism poster. It simply reads “Greece” in block letters above a modern-style drawing of a building. The frame looks cheap.
The restaurant is filled with kitsch — plastic soccer trophies, ornamental bamboo, a ceramic fish — and if you go in there at night, you’re likely to find the Lagos family and their friends gathered around a table between the pastry case, with shelves of Greek specialty goods behind them. It doubles as a grocery store of sorts.
After finishing my meal at Costas, I went to the Continental for dessert and coffee, asking the elderly gentleman behind the counter what he recommended.
“It’s all good,” he said. “But the galaktoboureko is this week’s special — I made it myself this morning.” It’s a custard pie wrapped in phyllo dough for $3.50. I noticed a fine dusting of flour on his sweater vest.
While sitting down at one of the powder-blue tables eating my pastry, I realized the flour on his shirt is a perfect example of why I like The Continental more. Costas is beautiful, almost picturesque, but this place feels more honest. The carpet is worn, and the decorations are weird, but The Continental has it where it counts. The food is delicious, and while I was eating, I felt comfortable.
On the South side of the restaurant, a planter full of large shrubs obscures the window looking out on the Ave. Costas feels like a jungle. Here it seems like the jungle is outside, and this place is a sanctuary from it.
The verdict: The Continental, not Costas
Reach reporter Joseph Sutton-Holcomb at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @analogmelon
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