"Chris takes great pride in his tomatoes."
That was our waiter at Chris' Taverna in Boynton Beach.
In many restaurants, those seven words wouldn't trigger a double take. But we were pleasantly surprised when we heard them at this modest, 50-seat Greek restaurant in a Boynton Beach strip mall.
Open since June 2012, the restaurant boasts decor that is just a few steps up from a diner. A partial wall along one side of the room conceals everything but the paper-hat-wearing heads of the fast-moving kitchen staff. Above them is a long, stainless-steel ventilation hood that erases all signs of the fact that they're working over a hot grill. The efficiency of the operation is on constant display.
Almost every menu item is pictured inside the plastic-covered binders. Table tops are faux plastic granite. Servers in black shirts are kind of incredible, always circling back to see if we need a water refill or another cold Mythos ($3.95), the refreshing Greek lager. Doors are opened when we arrive and depart. The staff has been trained in the art of salutations. Who doesn't want to be warmly greeted on arrival and wished well on the way out the door?
And then, there's the food. Those tomatoes were in the horiatiki ($9.75, a la carte), the classic Greek salad without greens. There's just the right amount of everything in this dish: cucumber, feta, Kalamata olives, onion, olive oil. We all know how difficult it can be to find a good tomato in Florida in September.
On the advice of cousins who live in Lake Worth, we ordered a souvlaki platter ($13.45). Owner Chris Charoudis trims, cubes and marinates the meat, and it arrives tender and moist. The string beans are from the overdone school of vegetable cookery, but they are nicely seasoned with garlic and tomatoes. Lemon-herb potatoes are oven-roasted with a slight, crisp exterior and creamy interior. There's more food on one of these platters than anyone really needs, but good value is another reason to love Chris'.
Gyro, so often dry shavings of mystery meat, are, on this platter ($13.45), moist and delicious slices of beef and lamb. Gyro can also be had in a salad ($11.95) or wrap ($9.25). Wraps are served with a choice of fries or small Greek salad.
Three traditional Greek dishes — pastitsio, moussaka and spinach pie — can be had in Eleni's Combo ($15.95). All three are good, but the pastitsio is the standout with just the right amount of bechamel.
Charoudis is a stickler for quality. "If I don't like it, I don't serve it," he says.
The only item he buys frozen are french fries. "But you can buy fries for $5 a case and fries for $30 a case," he says. "Mine are $27."
Boynton is the second location for Chris' Taverna. Charoudis first opened in Lake Worth in 780 square feet. Two expansions later, he can now seat 120 inside and another 40 outside.
Over the phone, he tells that me that he moved from Greece to Florida when he was 16. By age 20, he bought his first Miami Subs franchise. He ultimately owned two, but got out of Miami Subs as the brand faded. But the lessons he learned in fast food have been transferred to Chris' Taverna. It doesn't hurt that Charoudis has kept the business in the family. His two brothers, Mike and Vassilis, operate the Boynton restaurant. His mother, two aunts, an uncle and a cousin also work in the business.
There's something wonderfully old-fashioned about his business model. I wish there were more like him. Good food — and a pride in good food — still shows up in some unexpected places.
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Reservations: Call ahead for parties of 8 and more
Credit cards: D, MC, V
Bar: Beer and wine
Sound level: Loud when full
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs, menu
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free lot