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I wasn't really expecting big things on my first visit to Athena Cafe. But then they started bringing out the wealth of Greek cuisine: humus, dolmans, moussaka, spanakopita. As I sampled my way from one dish to the next, I decided that in the next life, I'm going to ask to come back as a Greek. It really was that good.

Although my revelation at Athena was partly due to the vibrance and depth of Greek cuisine as a whole, it's mostly a tribute to the culinary skills of the Said (Sah-eed) family, who emigrated from the region to America 12 years ago, bringing along their favorite recipes.

Everything was delicious on the day I visited, but especially the dolmades ($3.50), which, translated from the Arabic, means "something stuffed." Marinated grape leaves were wrapped around fillings of rice, lean beef and onions. The deep green leaves were glassy and translucent, firm enough to bind yet giving easily to the bite. They were best when swished through the accompanying tzatziki sauce, a stiff mixture of sour cream, cucumber, garlic and parsley.

Hummus ($3.25) was almost enough for a meal. A warm, nutty spread of pureed chickpeas was smoothed across a small plate, moistened with olive oil and dusted with spices. On the side was a basket of pita bread, sliced into wedges. These you folded into halves, tucking them with dollops of hummus, diced tomatoes and onions.

Among the house specialties, moussaka ($3.75) was a full-flavored casserole that could almost be likened to lasagna. Layers of eggplant and sliced potatoes were baked with lean beef, feta cheese, onions and garlic. On top was creamy béchamel sauce, which had become firm from the baking.

Spanakopita ($3.75), more commonly known as spinach pie, was a hearty pastry, sliced into a generous rectangle and served warm. Dozens of layers of phyllo dough were stacked and baked in a batter of eggs, spinach, onions and feta cheese.

Warm, spicy and honey-sweet, the traditional baklava ($1.50) was worthy of a dining excursion in itself. Sheets of phyllo were stacked, soaked with butter and syrup, then layered with nuts and baked.

Athena Cafe isn't open for dinner, but its modest atmosphere is perfect for a casual breakfast or lunch. Popular for its breakfast gyros and Greek omelets in the $3 to $4 price range, this is a busy stop in the morning hours.

Ah, progress. It seems whenever something new appears (the downtown Mini dealership for example), something old and treasured gets shoved aside. Such was the case with Café Annie, a neighborhood breakfast and lunch staple that occupied the corner spot on Jefferson Street and North Orange Avenue -- spiffy new cars in, gyros for lunch out.

So it was a great pleasure for downtown dwellers to see Café Annie return, displaced one door over. The spot, a cavernous storefront that was occupied by the Tin Can Alley restaurant for about five minutes, affords owner and chef Nazih Sebaali a large space for his Mediterranean and Middle Eastern recipes ("A bit of everything," he says) that have more to do with flavor than flair.

The food has a feeling of health and simplicity. Baba ghanoush ($2.95), a smooth paste of roast eggplant and garlic, sits on the plate simply adorned with a drizzle of olive oil, imploring you to eat. When you order a roasted chicken ($4.99), that's what you get, a dark or white quarter, oven-brown and juicy, served with two side dishes.

And what side dishes they are. Greek fasolia salad (butter beans stewed with tomato), snappy crisp green beans, or vinegary vegetarian stuffed grape leaves ($1.95 each) share a table with hummus ($2.95) and the best garlic mashed potatoes I've had in ages ($1.75, order extra).

The chicken kebab ($5.95) is charred and slightly lemony, and is available pressed in a pita, as is the gyro, a broiled beef and lamb combination with tomato, lettuce and a yogurt dressing ($4.25).

Specials change day to day; that afternoon it was richly seasoned lasagna and a salad for $5.50. How can you beat that? The point should be clear by now that if you don't like garlic, this might not be a good destination, but the thick roasted-garlic and tomato soup, loaded with savory chunks of tomato and rice, was worthy of nearby high-priced restaurants, and only $1.95 for the cup.

Breakfast starts at 7 a.m.; eggs, bacon, sausage, croissant sandwiches are joined by "Annie's eggpita" ($4.25) a dense Mediterranean omelet in pita bread.

Sebaali came to Orlando as an engineering student 25 years ago. When asked why he got into the restaurant business, he replied, "I don't really know how to answer that question." But despite his uncertainty, the previous home of Café Annie (named after his wife) stayed in business for 13 years. The revamped cafe opens for dinner starting this weekend, serving the same menu plus lamb kebabs, steak and seafood, with table service. I'll be going. How about you?

College students and cheap, ethnic eateries seem to go hand in hand. Where there's a school of higher learning, you'll usually find a stable of offbeat, funky restaurants where the young and impoverished can chart untried culinary territory.

For sure, the University of Central Florida area needs more of these type of restaurants. But for the last nine years, while the surrounding area exploded with cookie-cutter subdivisions and food chains, the low-key Falafel Cafe has been dishing out a taste of the Middle East to students and others hooked on the culture's culinary favors.

Falafel Cafe is quite small, with less than two dozen tables. There's no view to speak of, but an enormous painting dominates the entrance, capturing a scene from the Beirut waterfront. Back in the 1970s, that's where chef Hind Dajani perfected her recipes as a mother of four. Piped-in Middle Eastern music enhances the cuisine. And while service isn't always fast, it's usually friendly.

Descriptions of each dish make the menu reader-friendly. And if you can't commit to any one item, skip the entrees and fill up on tapas-style appetizers, which are in the $2 to $5 range.

Vegetarian dishes are a Middle Eastern strength, and Dajani is particularly deft with the namesake falafels ($3.99) – fried croquettes made with crushed garbanzo and fava beans, onions and a mixed bag of seasonings. They're delicious by themselves or dipped in the accompanying tahini sauce, a thick paste of ground sesame seeds. Kibbe balls ($4.99) are similar, except they're made with bulghur wheat and seasoned ground beef.

Falafel Cafe's hummus ($2.49) is creamy and tempting, made with pureed garbanzo beans, sesame sauce, olive oil and garlic. A splash of lemon brings out the naturally nutty flavors. Baba ghanoush ($2.49) gets a similar treatment, made of eggplant mashed to a pulp and mixed with yogurt. Use it as a dip for pita bread, or better yet, ask for the garlic bread pita ($1.99), which is brushed with butter and minced garlic.

The success of the simple "cedar salad" ($7.99) is in the fresh ingredients. Bright greens are topped with herb-crusted chicken kababs, olives and peppers. Pickled turnips add hot-pink color.

When you're in the mood for warm, hearty Middle Eastern cooking, you'll find it here.

I've never been to Greece, but I hear that eating at restaurants is mostly an outdoor affair. This fact bodes well for the Greek Corner on Orange Avenue, where the outside tables afford a picturesque view over Lake Ivanhoe. Formerly the home of Tiramisu Café, the new restaurant has a better grasp of Greek food than Tiramisu had of Italian. And there's a logical reason for that: The Greek Corner is owned by Demetrius and Tia Tsafonias, a husband-and-wife team from a small village outside Athens, Greece. The couple ran restaurants in the northern U.S. for years before coming south.

The inside space is still cramped and a little cheesy, but fortunately the outside space has been gussied up in Greek décor and is still a great asset. When the weather is right, it's lovely to sit on the patio, looking over the lake that's pooled in front of the downtown skyline, nibbling dolmathakia ($6.50), tightly wrapped cigars of grape leaves surrounding rice spiced with dill, mint and pungent lemon.

Some of the earliest written records about Mediterranean cuisine come from ancient Greece, but the Greek cuisine of today is more closely linked with the Albanians and Turks. Proud of their culinary history, many Greeks would be distressed to hear that their country's cuisine was influenced by surrounding Mediterranean countries, rather than the other way around. For instance, we can thank the Albanians on the Isle of Crete for the technique of spit-roasting used in traditional Greek kebab dishes. Another influence on modern Greek cooking comes from the Byzantine era, which heralded the emergence of the popular dish moussaka ($13.50), concocted with eggplant and lamb baked in béchamel sauce.

The most awe-inspiring dish I ordered at Greek Corner was the hot meze platter ($12.50), one of the restaurant's specialties. Four of us ordered the appetizer, which is recommended for two people, and we were stuffed silly before we finished. The platter has a dizzying array of samplings from the menu, including two distinct salads that deserve honorable mention: melitzanosalat, made from roasted eggplant and red pepper, is smoky and sultry; and taramosalata, featuring the oceany flavor of whipped orange caviar. Besides these two salads, the big fat Greek appetizer brimmed with baked feta, gyro meat, braised lamb and more. If we had known the huge portions on the meze, we wouldn't have ordered the calamari ($8.50) appetizer, which was chewy but had flavor. Its red sauce tasted mostly of the grassy finish of Greek olive oil.

There were many other starters, including the ever-present spanikopita ($6), which stems from a traditional Lent snack. Greek Corner's is a standard envelope of phyllo stuffed with tangy feta and spinach so well-cooked that it almost tastes more like an herb than a vegetable. The Greek salad ($6.75) is an OK version of what you'd expect – mixed greens with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, kalamata olives and fresh feta cheese with a dressing loaded with oregano. Avgolemono soup ($3), so named from the Greek words for "egg" and "lemon" and heavy on both ingredients, is a chicken soup stocked with bright lemon juice and musky black pepper as well as ribbons of egg yolk.

Among the entrees, the braised lamb ($13.95) was one of the best. The meat was succulently tender and had a heavy sauce rich with sweet spices – I tasted cinnamon, nutmeg and garlic. Pastitsio ($13.50), the Greek version of lasagna, was perfectly crusty and crunchy on the outside, while having an inner layer that was pliable and soft. Spiced beef and cream sauce with a hint of nutmeg rounded out the ziti-like pasta. Culinary historians might be interested to know that pastitsio has both Italian and Muslim influences – Italian in name but Muslim in technique.

We couldn't leave without indulging in the baklava ($2.50) with walnuts drenched in simple syrup. The homemade galaktoboureko ($3.50) may be more difficult to say but is vastly better, featuring a lemony custard. As is Greek tradition, your belly will be full as you finish those last bites of dessert and look out over Lake Ivanhoe, wondering if you'll be able to get up and walk.

There's no love lost between the Greeks and the Turks ' invasions, wars, cultural boasts and religious differences have all helped to fan the flames of animosity between the two proud nations. So when Greek Flame Taverna left its Winter Park digs and settled on Anatolia's fan the flames of animosity between the two proud nations. So when Greek Flame Taverna left its Winter Park digs and settled on Anatolia's turf in the Dr. Phillips Marketplace, you knew the competitive, and culinary, juices of these two Mediterranean rivals would be flowing. turf in the Dr. Phillips Marketplace, you knew the competitive, and culinary, juices of these two Mediterranean rivals would be flowing. (The same, sadly, can't be said about GFT's chicken souvlaki, but more on that in a bit.) We've dined at both Anatolia and Greek Flame (The same, sadly, can't be said about GFT's chicken souvlaki, but more on that in a bit.) We've dined at both Anatolia and Greek Flame multiple times and we can state, without equivocation, that when it comes to straight-up Mediterranean classics ' kebabs, döner/gyros, without equivocation, that when it comes to straight-up Mediterranean classics ' kebabs, döner/gyros, grape leaves, honeyed pastries, sludgy coffee and the like ' Anatolia's dishes are unquestionably superior.

Now them ain't fightin' words, just our humble opinion. Where GFT does shine is in the more uncommon offerings. Take the taramosalata, for instance. We fightin' words, just our humble opinion. Where GFT does shine is in the more uncommon offerings. Take the taramosalata, for instance. We couldn't quite gauge the flavor in the fluffy cream-colored spread, one of a quartet of dips comprising the 'silogi� ($12), but when the couldn't quite gauge the flavor in the fluffy cream-colored spread, one of a quartet of dips comprising the 'silogi� ($12), but when the mystery ingredient was revealed to be caviar, we liked it all the more. We also didn't mind dipping our fried pita triangles into mystery ingredient was revealed to be caviar, we liked it all the more. We also didn't mind dipping our fried pita triangles into refreshing melitzanosalata, an eggplant salsa of sorts; garlicky skordalia, a potato-garlic puree; and the ubiquitous creamy tzatziki. refreshing melitzanosalata, an eggplant salsa of sorts; garlicky skordalia, a potato-garlic puree; and the ubiquitous creamy tzatziki. Kreatopita, a flaky beef-and-pine-nut-filled pie, highlighted an otherwise ho-hum platter of pre-entrée pastries ($15) that included Kreatopita, a flaky beef-and-pine-nut-filled pie, highlighted an otherwise ho-hum platter of pre-entrée pastries ($15) that included tiropita (cheese pie) with too much parsley and an uninspired spanakopita (spinach pie). The latter two were a bit of a letdown and had me tiropita (cheese pie) with too much parsley and an uninspired spanakopita (spinach pie). The latter two were a bit of a letdown and had me longing for the flaky wonders found in the Greek bakeries off Dodecanese Boulevard in Tarpon Springs.

From the healthy selection of mains, the kleftico ($18) intrigued with slices of slow-roasted leg of lamb mixed with veggies and feta baked in a parchment bag. The mains, the kleftico ($18) intrigued with slices of slow-roasted leg of lamb mixed with veggies and feta baked in a parchment bag. The result was nothing short of outstanding: tender lamb infused with saltiness from the cheese mixed with still-crisp peppers of all colors result was nothing short of outstanding: tender lamb infused with saltiness from the cheese mixed with still-crisp peppers of all colors and perfectly cooked mushrooms and potatoes. The other items we sampled just didn't pass muster ' lackluster fried calamari ($8) required and perfectly cooked mushrooms and potatoes. The other items we sampled just didn't pass muster ' lackluster fried calamari ($8) required deep dunks into the roasted garlic aioli to extract any semblance of flavor; and chicken souvlaki ($18), a dish that every Greek kouzina deep dunks into the roasted garlic aioli to extract any semblance of flavor; and chicken souvlaki ($18), a dish that every Greek kouzina should master, was thoroughly zapped of any moisture. The fact that the dish came with just one skewer and a miserly portion of rice made should master, was thoroughly zapped of any moisture. The fact that the dish came with just one skewer and a miserly portion of rice made it an unqualified failure.

Desserts offer some sweet redemption in the form of chocolate baklava ($5) ' here it takes the shape of a circular pie instead of a triangular wedge. We would've preferred a little more phyllo, but the honeyed treat was chock full of nuts. a circular pie instead of a triangular wedge. We would've preferred a little more phyllo, but the honeyed treat was chock full of nuts. Homemade dark chocolate, vanilla wafers and pistachios go into making the chocolate pyramid ($8), a dense capper served with two scoops of Homemade dark chocolate, vanilla wafers and pistachios go into making the chocolate pyramid ($8), a dense capper served with two scoops of black cherry ice cream (not made in-house).

While our servers were thorough, knowledgeable and attentive, the hostess, after seating us and announcing the Grecian-named specials of the evening, couldn't tell us what anything about said specials besides their seating us and announcing the Grecian-named specials of the evening, couldn't tell us what anything about said specials besides their names. That didn't make a good first impression, and it's precisely those intangible elements, along with a skilled kitchen, that separate names. That didn't make a good first impression, and it's precisely those intangible elements, along with a skilled kitchen, that separate restaurants that rise to the top from those relegated to Sisyphean frustration.

At one time it was home to corporate pizzas, as bland and predictable as the building they were made in. Today the shell of this former Pizza Hut still stands, but inside you will no longer find God-awful garlic bread served by minimum-wage slaves. Instead, at Greek Flame Taverna you'll find warm homemade pitas and other Greek treats served with pride by the Chrisan-thidis family.

They've tried to exorcise all the old deep-dish demons. The restaurant is painted classic blue and white. It's clean and decorated with pieces of Greek culture. There are Greek murals on the wall, classic statue replicas, traditional clothes on display and a map of Greece on the place mats.

The Greek Flame is far from fancy, but it's a nice alternative to fast food, especially if you're taking the kids out. The staff went out of its way to remind me how cute my son is. They also had a bunch of toys to keep him out of trouble while I read the laminated menu.

We sampled two appetizers. I found the saganaki ($4.95), a flaming cheese, to be an appropriate start. Just like the lighting of the Olympic torch, the cheese is set on fire and carried to the table. The fire is put out with lemon, which adds to the flavor. It tasted even better when wrapped inside a warm pita. I also enjoyed the spanakopita ($4.50), a light dish of spinach in a flaky phyllo dough.

I'm a relatively large man, so I ordered the "Hercules platter" ($9.95), which features large samples of four dishes. The gyro meat, a combination of beef and lamb, was served in thin shavings. It was tender and appropriately seasoned. The dolmades – grape leaves stuffed with ground meat and rice – were fine. I enjoyed the mousaka, layers of eggplant, ground beef and potato topped with béchamel sauce. Also delicious was the pistichio, a lasagna of ground beef and noodle, also topped with béchamel.

While Hercules and I were celebrating the thrill of victory, another member of our party was tasting the agony of defeat. She ordered a shrimp-and-garlic special ($10.95). While the shrimp was fresh and tasty, a couple of the jumbos were served without being properly cleaned (oops!).

After the shrimp slip-up, our table bounced back quickly with dessert. The Greek coffee ($1.25) gave us a lift somewhere between espresso and Cuban coffee. The baklava ($1.95) was obviously homemade, as was the galaktobouriko ($2.25), a Greek custard with phyllo dough.

Overall I was satisfied. The food is fine, and when it's time to pay the bill, you won't have to groan. A family of four can get their fill for about 40 bucks.

The Greek island of Mykonos is located in the Aegean Sea. Its curving streets -- designed to confuse attacking pirates in the 16th century -- are today lined with restaurants that helped define it as a vacation mecca. Now a slice of Mykonos has come to us in the form of Mayerion Mykonos, a small, pumped-up bistro in Longwood, owned and operated by Dimitrios Salivaras. The menu offers generations of family recipes from the old country.

We were greeted at the door by a chipper gentleman who told us in a thick Mediterranean accent that his name was Nick, and that he was born in Greece in 1924 -- all before offering us complimentary glasses of dry, red wine while we waited for a table. Waits are typical here; the restaurant seats just 65. But the narrow space has been creatively transformed with high, beamed ceilings and stunning Mediterranean art. The bustling, open-air kitchen -- the "mayerion" -- adds excitement. Just about everyone gets to watch and listen as chefs whip up a fast-paced production of flavors, aromas and textures.

We started with melitzanosalata ($4.95), a glistening spread of chunky roasted eggplant blended with red wine and olive oil, and liberally anointed with garlic. While we loved it, we wished there was something to pair it with other than thick-sliced whole-grain bread. Pita wedges would have been more appropriate.

Much more impressive was thallasina skaras ($14.95), a succulent, smoky flavored charbroiled trio of shrimp, octopus and calamari, finished with a crisp lemon vinaigrette.

Although there are plenty of ethnic traditions, such as moussaka, on the menu, it's a good idea to explore the daily specials, sometimes tweaked slightly to accent the freshest available ingredients. "Grouper Mykonos" ($16.95) is not to be missed: The 14-ounce fillet of domestic black grouper was topped with a luscious melange of tomatoes, caramelized onions, celery, white wine and fresh herbs. Feta cheese was crumbled on top, and the fillet was broiled to a golden brown. Another attraction: a thick salmon fillet wrapped in layers of phyllo pastry ($16.95), baked to a delicate crisp and topped by mild sauce of lemon, dill and white wine with a hint of chopped onions.

Our expedition culminated with a complimentary treat: The waiter brought out a plate of fresh apple wedges drizzled with honey and cinnamon. It was surprising that something so simple could be so elegant and delicious -- the key was in the sun-ripened apples. In comparison, it was an off night for the soggy baklava ($1.50).

Throughout dinner, there was total attention and concern from the wait staff. Everything we ordered came in such generous portions that our to-go boxes quickly stacked up. But not to worry. This food did not go to waste.

Editor's note: This story has been changed to clarify the fact that although Theo's Kitchen no longer operates at this location, it did not go out of business; it relocated to Curry Ford Road.

Theo's Kitchen may be gone from this familiar location, but the space is being kept Greek by Mediterranean Blue, who also did us the favor of sprucing the joint up a bit, stocking eco-friendly wares, and adding a little flair to the menu (read: more cheese for everyone!). 

Said menu is deceptively simple, populated with just a handful of sandwiches and salads, but nearly everything is a winner. The Provence sandwich with ham, brie, herbes de Provence-infused butter and Dijon mustard ($6.50, comes with a side) may be just a Greek Cuban, but it's a delicious trip across the salty-savory spectrum. The more traditional falafel ($6.50 with a side) gets extra points for fresh, soft pita and the choice house-made tzatziki sauce. If doing dinner, a side of olive oil and oregano-garnished Greek fries helps fill you, but it'd be a ' what else ' tragedy not to order it smothered with feta cheese for $2. 

Mediterranean Deli tops my list of places to eat for $10 or less. Located in a 1950s-style strip mall on the western edge of Fairbanks Avenue in Winter Park, it sits like an oasis of authenticity.

I'm not talking about the kind of quaint Mediterranean place that makes you feel as if you're sipping Monacos at a resort by the sea. That's tourist-variety authenticity. Mediterranean Deli makes you feel like you're eating the way the residents of the Mediterranean region really eat: From small, run-down places with odd decorations, exhilaratingly exotic smells and hearty but inexpensive meals.

Chipped terrazzo flooring, an industrial sink in the dining room and crooked counters are mere blemishes when it comes to tasting the homemade Greek and Lebanese dishes that are prepared by owner Walaid Ali and his wife. Besides, you can always gaze upon the beaded screen of palm trees that leads to the bathroom or the holographic eagle paintings or the fruit-decorated place mats.

The hummus ($2.80) was perfect, both nutty from the garbanzos and pleasingly tart from the fresh lemon juice. Although chickpeas are the dominant ingredient, they nicely hold the flavors of tahini and garlic.

Kibbeh ($4.99), one of my favorite Mediterranean dishes, is made in advance and reheated on the spot. These flavorful balls of seasoned ground lamb and pine nuts swaddled in an outer shell of deep-fried buckwheat were superior specimens.

If you like spinach pies, don't miss Mediterranean Deli's boreeka ($4.99), rich with verdant spinach and tangy feta cheese in puff pastry. It's not served as the typical individual pie, but cut from a larger sheet pan. This is one of the best I've tried.

The visit wouldn't have complete without at least sampling a gyro sandwich ($4.99), and the Mediterranean Deli rendition is superb. The sauce is cool and creamy and complements the ground lamb and beef. The bread enhances the sandwich rather than just sitting around the ingredients. Visiting Mediterranean Deli may not be like a vacation, but the fare is tasty enough for everyday eating.

When you think of deep-fried squid, the word "beautiful" doesn't usually come to mind. But what we saw at Olympia Restaurant changed our minds. Sitting before us was a simple platter of what the Greek refer to as kalamari: a delicate, undulating tangle of generously carved squid steaks. They were lightly fried with a lacy batter and presented with lemon wedges, fried onions and peppers.

We could almost taste the Greek elements -- sunshine, earth and sea -- that inspired the food which kept coming out of the kitchen on the night we visited. While this restaurant is elegant in a gently worn way, the setting is decidedly humble on Colonial Drive, east of Goldenrod Road. Like a hardy olive tree that's rooted deep, Olympia Restaurant has been serving authentic Greek cuisine since 1979.

Although it's been nearly 40 years since the Vasiliadis family left Greece for America, they make regular pilgrimages back to the islands for culinary inspiration, from the tiniest fishing villages to the streets of Athens. Then they bring their impressions back to Orlando and work them into the menu, which is made up of old family recipes which have been tweaked through the years.

In addition to the kalamari ($6.95), we also had a feta saganaki appetizer ($5.95), which was a satisfying platter of steamy pita wedges arranged around a pot of warm dipping sauce, made of melted feta cheese, olives, pepperoncinis.

The "Hercules platter" ($13.95) is an easy way to sample the menu, featuring roast lamb and gyro meat. There also were dolmathes, marinated grape leaves wrapped around a stuffing of spiced beef, onions and rice, spanakopita, a delicate spinach pastry wrapped in flaky phyllo dough, and tsatsiki, a mild dipping sauce of yogurt, cucumbers and garlic. There also was a taste of moussaka, which my guest ordered as a full entree ($8.95). That's hearty but mild dish built of layers of sliced and fried potatoes on the bottom, fried eggplant and spicy ground beef in the middle, and a light, creamy béchamel sauce on top.

Our waitress was attentive and thorough, yet she gave us our space. This is a pleasant spot for a leisurely dining respite. And on Friday and Saturday nights, the setting includes traditional belly dancing shows at 9 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.

The extreme makeover underway at Pointe Orlando has given rise to a number of upscale chains inside the sprawling entertainment complex – Tommy Bahama’s, Capital Grille and the Oceanaire Seafood Room to name but a few. But the latest, a grand whitewashed edifice at the very heart of the Pointe, sits like the Parthenon atop an Acropolis of tourist dollars, its aim to attract the hungry to its temple of Dionysian, not Athenian, feasts.

And vacationers will, undoubtedly, eat this place up. The platters of Greek and Mediterranean specialties are first-rate, but the food takes a back seat to the atmosphere which, for the most part, resembles a Mykonos discotheque more than it does a quaint Aegean taverna.

Here, ladies who are not so big, nor fat, nor Greek, gyrate atop tables to thumping beats; belly dancers perambulate around the octagonal dining room urging dorks to dance; and the raucous clapping, napkin-tossing and repetitive shouts of “Opa!” distract even the most focused conversationalists. A place to dine on a first date it’s not, but for birthdays and celebrations, there’s no better place.

Dinner began with a 20-something waiter clad in black scurrying to my table with mortar and pestle in hand. In it were a few simple ingredients – chickpeas, garlic, thyme and olive oil – which I was encouraged to mash into a rustic chunky hummus. Quite the clever (and labor-reducing) tactic to get diners immediately immersed into the Opa experience, but, more importantly, the hummus and warm pita bread made for a uniquely fresh complimentary appetizer. Such appetizers (or meze) comprise half of the enormous menu, a concept not unlike that of Spanish tapas. The keftedes ($4), a hot meze plate of three broiled balls of ground beef, were an herbaceous trio thanks to the liberal usage of oregano. The meatballs are served naked but, surprisingly, they didn’t need a starchy accompaniment.

A flutter of napkins rained down on my table just as I took a bite of saganaki cheese ($9). It seems that the servers are prone to random yelps of “Opa!,” necessitating a chuck of serviettes. Nevertheless, the big salty slab of fried kefalotyri cheese was enjoyably chewy, and a splash of lemon provided a righteous zing. To my amazement, the cheese, layered with metaxa brandy, wasn’t flambéed tableside as part of the spectacle. “The servers just aren’t experienced enough yet, and I don’t want to run the risk of patrons leaving with singed eyebrows,” the owner openly confided.

There’s no chance of such a conflagration with the mussels and ouzo ($8). The mollusks were huge, and the tomato-basil-oregano sauce was huge on flavor. The licorice essence of ouzo, however, wasn’t as pronounced as hoped; in fact, I could barely taste it all.

Most of the entrees are borne out of the wood-fired grill, but if you’re a sucker for moussaka ($12), the version offered here was just average. Layers of roasted eggplant, potatoes, ground beef and béchamel couldn’t compensate for the lack of seasonings, plus the dish was served tepid. The meat platter ($23) is truly a carnivore’s delight, but when mine arrived sans gyros, I was duly compensated for the oversight with complimentary shots of ouzo. “Opa!” indeed. Back to the platter, the soft, luscious cube of beef tenderloin was as good as I’ve ever tasted; I just wish they’d serve more than one cube. All the meats – pork loin, c

What do you make of a restaurant that beckons to customers with the hand-painted words "grapeleaves, hot wings, falafel, Greek salad, french fries and fried chicken" on its front window? And what if the restaurant has been in your periphery for about a decade, as the items were added to the window like a roster of star attractions? Eventually, you might want to try it – so that's what I did, finally stopping into Theo's, a shanty on Michigan Street with a willy-nilly menu of Greek, Syrian and fried Southern specialties.

Theo's has managed to be a subtle, steady spot for regulars to pop in to pick up a family-pack chicken meal with hummus on the side. Inside it's awash in bright-blue booths and decorated with Greek Orthodox paraphernalia; it's been around for so long it feels lived-in and homey but not in an accommodating sort of way.

The woman behind the counter will take your order then proceed to the kitchen to make your food. Her young daughter will watch you. It's that kind of place. I took a haphazard approach to ordering, getting one of just about everything. The gyro ($4.29), a standard pita wrapped around compressed lamb meat, was better than the shawarma ($4.49), a tahini-laden sandwich, or the less-than-spectacular but good-value hummus ($2.99).

Surprisingly, what made my multinational meal stand out was the fried chicken, which was superbly seasoned then fried in peanut oil. Chicken selections range from a two-piece snack for $2.35 to a 21-piece family dinner for $25.99. Even the chicken livers ($4.49) are great. Forget KFC – Theo's is much better. And you can finish off with a toothsome baklava ($1.99).

So, what to make of Theo's? Stick with the fried chicken at this Syrian/Greek establishment, and you can't go wrong.

You no longer have to spend the exorbitant cash to “eat around the world” at Epcot. Urban Café in Lake Mary is a poster child for international cuisine, boasting “Grecian Café” on their sign and screaming “AMERICAN BREAKFAST” in neon letters in their storefront window. And it doesn’t stop there – not only are Europe and North America represented at Urban Café, but South America, too. The first page of the menu is a list of classic Peruvian dishes: lemony ceviche ($9.99) and arroz chaufa (Peruvian fried rice with chicken, $9.99) to name a few.

The juxtaposition of these three nationalities may seem strange at first, but Urban Café pulls off each with international flair and respect for differences of culture. The gyro sandwich ($7.29), whose spicy beef-and-lamb strips unfortunately came swimming in tangy tzatziki sauce, is served with a side. Advice: Pass up the Lay’s and order potato salad. Chunks of potato are bathed with the traditional mayonnaise mixture, but the addition of fresh Greek oregano makes the usually-predictable dish a surprising treat. On the other side of the Atlantic, the seco de carne (literally “dry soup,” chunks of meltingly tender braised beef with potatoes and carrots in aromatic gravy; $9.99), was perfection, with lingering notes of cilantro and spice.

You can’t go wrong at Urban Café, unless you show up after 3 p.m., when the tiny restaurant has closed for the day. Whether you order two eggs over easy with bacon and toast ($5.75), the refreshing spinach melt pita ($7.29) or a pineapple-flavored Inca Kola ($1.99), Urban Café delivers a multicultural breath of fresh air.

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