Athens Grill in Toms River

There’s a series of TV commercials that have been running for some time now by a certain restaurant chain. I’m sure you’ve seen them a few bazillion times. In these spots, they talk about how you are treated as one of the family when you go and eat there.  And I am sure that, should you find yourself hankering for salad and breadsticks, you are treated nicely and with a certain level of professionalism. But I highly doubt that the waitstaff, friendly as they may be, will make you feel like family.

Can one ever go to a restaurant and really feel that sense of connection? Yes – but it’s going to be at a mom-and-pop eatery. A place like Athens Grill in Toms River comes to mind.

Some time back, Lisa and I had sampled the food at Athens Grill via takeout. The takeout meal we had was very good – good enough to want to have a proper sit-down meal. And so, with the kiddies in tow, we made our way to the Stella Plaza strip mall on Route 166 to get the full dining experience. By the way, this little strip mall is becoming quite the food haven, with Ja Rock and El Familiar located there as well. As soon as we walked in, we were greeted with a welcome and a ‘have a seat anywhere’ that was more akin to going to see a favorite aunt than to a restaurant. The dining area is small but comfortable, with plenty of Grecian blue accents and momentos just in case you forgot what cuisine you were having that night. A nice little added touch was the placement of a few childrens’ books that gave a home-like feel, not to mention the fact that our kids liked looking at the books.

We felt comfortable enough right away to ask our server a number of questions, as well as for some recommendations. And, of course, we still ended up ordering too much food (aka a happy lunch for a later date!). Then again, we made a serious dent in all of the food-y goodness that came to our table. Honestly, we could have dined on the appetizers alone and been very satisfied. We started off with the obligatory dolmades (stuffed grape leaves, couldn’t imagine going to a Greek eatery and not getting them), which were tender (not mushy) and dressed with just a little olive oil and lemon. The long, slim plate of spanakopitakia (spinach pie triangle pastries) were ever so delightful, with the soft and flaky pastry providing just enough tasty resistance before you get to the spinach filling. I could have eaten several long, thin plates of them. Not having tried a lot of Greek sausage before, we ordered their homemade loukaniko served with a lemon sauce. Not the best sausage I have ever tasted, but very satisfying with nice little charred bits that were the sausage equivalent of biting down on crunchy crystals in an aged hard cheese.

And we still had entrees on the way.

I could not resist ordering the lamb chops, and I was rewarded with a simple dish of grilled chops dressed with a little olive oil and garlic. Straightforward and well-prepared, it would be a safe dish for those who are not that well-versed in Greek food but want to dip their toes into the pool. Lisa went off the menu and ordered the seafood special. Once again, simplicity was the theme as shrimp and scallops were tossed in olive oil and garlic and served over a bed of orzo. While neither dish was pushing the boundaries of Greek cuisine, both were prepared with skill and a dash of love. And that is what I think of when being treated like family; going to one’s home and being served a meal that is made with great care, whether or not the relative (or relatives – after all, we of Italian ancestry know that cooking can be a loud, communal activity) has gone to cooking school or learned from the older generations in their family. The most important part is that they are cooking a meal that they hope you will enjoy.

Oh, and one more thing: normally, I wouldn’t bother mentioning the fact that our son ordered chicken fingers. Let’s face it – chicken fingers served at a restaurant are usually nothing special, and are pretty much an afterthought. But let me tell you something. These homemade chicken fingers were really good, nice and crunchy outside but still juicy inside. If you want to feel like you’re family, this is the way you want to be treated. They make good chicken fingers, even though they don’t have to. After all, would a grandmother skimp on their grandchild’s meal? I think not.

I can comfortably say to you that if you’re in the Toms River area and are jonesing for some Greek fare, go to Athens Grill: well-prepared meals that hit all the right notes. And you really get the feeling of being with family without any gimmicky slogan telling you as much.

Athens Grill – 1222 Route 166, Toms River.  732.349.2009.

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