When Lou Moshakos announced that he was uprooting Taverna Agora from its original location on Glenwood Avenue and moving it to new digs inside the Beltline, no doubt more than a few people wondered why. The restaurant was thriving, after all, a dozen years after it had opened. And the new location was several miles away from the Northwest Raleigh neighborhoods and businesses that had supported the old one.
But Moshakos, a savvy restaurateur whose company, LM Restaurants, owns 21 restaurants in the Southeast, including the phenomenally successful Carolina Ale House chain, had his reasons. The new location, just two blocks from Glenwood South on Hillsborough Street, puts Taverna Agora right in the thick of the downtown Raleigh renaissance. The building he selected, a former office building that had been vacant for several years, would double the restaurant’s seating capacity once renovations were completed.
And what renovations! The downstairs dining room oozes convivial Old World charm, from its lace curtains and blue and white checked tablecloths to the warm woodwork and Greek pottery on display in alcoves set into the walls. But it’s the upstairs patio – a landscaped, tree-shaded oasis of trellised vines, twinkle lights and classical statues overlooking Hillsborough Street – that has quickly become one of downtown Raleigh’s hottest dining destinations. The taverna is downstairs, you might say, and the agora – an open air gathering place with a tradition dating back to ancient Greece – is upstairs.
Upstairs or down, the food is the same – and the same, for that matter, as it was at the old Taverna Agora, except for a few tweaks here and there. Spinach- and feta-stuffed pork chops, formerly offered as a special, have earned a place on the regular menu. A few less popular items have been dropped.
Seafood, always a strong point, has gotten a boost. The fresh catch usually includes two options, at least one of which is typically from North Carolina waters. It might be bluefish, a treat for fans of an oily fish seldom seen in these parts. Or, if you’re willing to drop a line in waters that aren’t strictly speaking, Greek, how about bacon-wrapped, crab-stuffed flounder? And regardless of which waters it’s pulled from, the whole roasted branzino (aka European sea bass) is a keeper.
Fans of the original Taverna Agora will be happy to discover that all their old favorites survived the move. The appetizer offering is still an embarrassment of riches, from the classic flambéed-cheese starter, saganaki (still authentically made with Kefalograviera cheese) to the best stuffed grape leaves in town. The old dilemma – do I start with the excellent fried calamari, or with a couple of the equally tempting pita dips? – is neatly solved by a menu section devoted to sample platters.
Lamb lovers face another thorny problem when it comes to entrees: thick, juicy lamb chops, grilled to order? Or lamb shank, braised into tender submission in a cinnamon-tinged tomato sauce? Just remember, you can always come back for another visit.
Lemon- and oregano-marinated grilled chicken is a most satisfying alternative to red meat, served with lemony roasted potatoes and a colorful medley of grilled vegetables. Fisherman’s pasta, one of a handful of Greek pasta variations, delivers a generous catch of shrimp, scallops and mussels sautéed with tomatoes, basil and garlic, and served over linguine in a white wine cream sauce that lives up to its “light” promise. Those seeking the earthy comfort of roasted eggplant, ground beef and potatoes under a blanket of béchamel will find it in the layers of a classic rendition of moussaka.
The baklava is as fat and lavishly filled with nuts as ever. I don’t recall seeing Greek yogurt chocolate panna cotta as an option at the original location. If it’s new, it’s a most welcome addition.
The bar raises the, er, bar in a number of ways over the old location, notably the addition of local beers on tap and specialty cocktails made with fresh-squeezed juices. The wine selection has expanded, and now includes nearly 30 Greek wines.
Kitchen miscues – the spanakopita’s pale, soft phyllo crust that’s a telltale sign of undercooking, say, or dark, dry lamb meatballs that suffer from the opposite problem – are infrequent. Service, on the other hand, needs to raise its game. The staff are friendly and enthusiastic, for the most part, but pacing and attentiveness are not up to the level of the food or the setting.
Given Lou Moshakos’ track record, it’s a good bet that service will improve as management and staff adjust to the higher volume at the new location. He says business has quadrupled since the move, and he’s already planning to enclose the rooftop patio with sliding glass panels so that it’s available year-round. Like I said, Lou Moshakos is one savvy restaurateur.