Now open in the space that until earlier this year housed long time neighborhood favorite Lyric Diner, Taverna brings a welcome glimpse of Greek cuisine to an area whose prior options were largely relegated to gyro platters at diners and pizza shops.
I have fond memories of Lyric—I used to eat there regularly back in the 1980's with my then-future, now-ex-wife who was a film student at SVA. Back then it was the go-to place for SVA students,when options were more limited. These days there is a proliferation of alternatives, not to mention a significant shift in dinning habits. Lyric, famous for its large neon sign, was as classic a Greek-style diner as one could find, and I assumed it would stand the test of time, so I was surprised and saddened when it closed. But there are still a many decent diners in the area, but far fewer Greek restaurants. Taverna has changed that.
And if anything had to replace Lyric, I think a Greek restaurant is wholly appropriate, given that Greek immigrants have had such a profound impact of diners across America and in New York in particular. Taverna's opening is also part of a larger trend—there have been a slew of Greek restaurant openings in Manhattan recently—Ammos Estiatorio and Village Taverna being two recent examples. Taverna is a worthy addition.
Whether manufactured or real, there is a family vibe to the restaurant. The all-male waiters jostle and joke with each other as if they are brothers from one very large family. The host position is occupied by two slender, olive skinned women who could be sisters. A gruff old man with a bushy beard mans the full bar—grandpa perhaps? Whether the atmosphere is real or contrived isn't as important as the food delivering, which it mostly does.
The Lamb Souvlaki on pita with greek salad and oregano fries ($14, pictured at top) is probably the most assimilated, familiar dish on the menu, but it is a rousing rendition—the hunks of lamb (ordered and delivered medium rare) are succulent and smoky. The large floppy pita is airy with just the right amount of char from its time on the grill. I am particularly impressed with the salad, which was fresh and beautiful to behold.
Start off with the Patzaria ($8)—tender cubes of roasted beets served with a thick schmear of scordalia (more commonly spelled skordalia), redolent with garlic and olive oil—and you won't be disappointed. Especially if you have overloaded on beets and goat cheese in the last few years and are looking for a new salad or dip.
Don't let these ear-sized wedges of Halloumi ($9) cool too much—they sill taste good, but not nearly as much when they are piping hot. The red pepper emulsion adds a nice tang to compliment the creaminess of the cheese.
I am not sure that I necessarily buy that the Moussaka ($16) is a "secret family recipe," but it is wonderful nonetheless. For a dish that looks like a brick and is often as dense as one, Taverna's version is unexpectedly light and airy. It tastes great too, with the creamy potato, earthy lamb, and eggplant all adding their own distinct layers of flavor.
The only disappointment was a veal shank ($21) that tasted more like mutton (not in a good way), and proved to be a rather meager portion despite the generous helping of orzo. Of course I ordered a braised meat dish in the middle of summer, they probably don't sell too many. That doesn't excuse stale product, but it raises the question as to why it is even there in this heat.
That aside, I look forward to dining at Taverna again. It is a welcome addition to the neighborhood and a place I would be happy to spend my own money.