University-area restaurants are a bit of a difficult sell in some ways. You need a concept that is budget-friendly, casual and quick enough for most of the college kids, while still serving food (and hopefully alcohol, if you want to keep those margins up) that has enough appeal to the rest of the city that you can survive the summers.
The Fat Greek restaurant, at Park Avenue and University Boulevard for about nine years, was in a dingy, cramped space that was desperately in need of an update. So after closing in 2012 because of extensive water damage, the restaurant's owner, George Markou, remodeled it and reopened in October 2013 as Pelio Grill Greek Taverna.
There are still appetizers of dolmathes, gyro sandwiches and platters, and of course the requisite baklava, but the menu is more extensive, with a small draft beer selection, and beer and wine is also available to-go. The space is also much brighter and feels clean and open, though it can still get a bit cramped at lunch and dinner, especially before UA events.
Upon entering, it isn't really clear whether you order at the counter, seat yourself or wait to be seated. So people wander in, look around, then make a guess at one of the three options. Having someone greet customers at the entrance would help immensely.
Pelio's menu is generally the same for both lunch and dinner, though there are specific menu items, such as the appetizer sampler, the saganaki, and some of the long, slow-cooking entrées that aren't available until after 5 p.m. (indicated with an asterisk on the menu). Overall, the food is tasty, with mostly hits and a few misses. But portion sizes and prices are right on the mark, especially for the UA area.
Our appetizers were excellent. The lightly battered calamari ($7) consisted of whole tubes of the small squid, not just the rings. They were fresh, hot, well seasoned and not at all chewy. The hummus with pita ($5) was flavorful and not too oily, lemony or garlicky. And the pita was perfectly toasted, although the texture was a bit grainy for my liking. The grilled haloumi cheese (a salty, hard-to-melt cheese from Cyprus) ($6), was grilled to perfection. And the dolmathes ($5) were fresh and not gummy, and served with plenty of tzatziki sauce.
The entrées were mostly good, though they had a few minor issues. My gyro pita ($6.50) had a generous portion of meat, and it was actual sliced rotisserie meat, not the prepackaged stuff. It was nicely seasoned and not too salty, with a good-sized dollop of tzatziki. It could have used more of the two thin tomato slices it came with, though. Ted ordered the pork souvlaki pita ($6.50) and said that the flavors were good. But many of the cuts were a bit gristly, and there were way, way too many onions. Also, the meat was still skewered inside the sandwich and it was nearly impossible to get the meat off without making a huge mess.
Our dinners were in the same category—good, but just a little bit off. I ordered the braised lamb shank ($13), which the menu said was served in a spiced tomato sauce with Greek herbs and feta. The portion was good, although the lamb could have been braised a bit longer. It wasn't quite to that fall-off-the-bone-tender place yet and there was hardly any sauce or feta to speak of. The rice pilaf side was unseasoned and boring. But the sautéed squash was absolutely delicious and the Greek salad was loaded with feta, tomatoes and other goodies. Ted's pork chops ($11) turned out to be two thinly sliced but platter-sized chops, quickly grilled and served simply with lemon. The chops were just a teeny bit dry, though that was mostly rectified by the lemon, and they were a bit oversalted.
Overall, the dining experience was much better than at the Fat Greek, with a beautiful new interior and expanded menu. With its inexpensive but generous portions, friendly service and quick, tasty food, Pelio's recipe for success needs just a few minor tweaks.