Artopolis Bakery Cafe a real standout in Greektown
We used to joke that it didn't matter which restaurant in Greektown you went to because there was one big kitchen behind them all. From one eatery to the next, the offerings were so similar: taramasalata, roast lamb, moussaka ... That's changed in recent years as some of the restaurants have distinguished themselves both in menu and quality, but one place that really stands out is Artopolis.
Opened in 2000 by Yiannis Melidis, Jim Alexander and Tony Katsoulias, owners of Pegasus up the street, Artopolis is different in both style and substance. A combination cafe, bar, bakery and gift shop, this bright, bustling spot, open from morning till late evening, offers something for everyone.
Stop in for a quick bite, a drink, a full meal, dessert, coffee ... pick up some carryout, a bottle of wine or ouzo, a selection of cookies or perhaps a religious icon. They have it all. The place always seems to be full of happy people, many of them chattering away in Greek, although on a recent night I also overheard conversations in Russian, Spanish and Mandarin.
You enter, typically, to an effusive greeting. The bar area to your left is a few steps up and more dimly lit than the rest of the room. Beyond it, the central area offers table seating, typically a bit rocky on the stone-tile floor. An open kitchen along one wall backs up to glossy, colorful glazed tiles surrounding a wood-fired oven. The day's specials will be displayed along the counter. At the back, find a rustic stone wall and shelves full of items for sale.
The name of this inviting place, Artopolis, translates as "bread city," and the room's other side is given over to bakery cases, backed by a display of hearth-baked breads. (The "agora" part means "gathering place," and that fits, too.)
The specialty of the house, the delightful "artopita," is a savory oval of crisped puff pasty with a filling like fresh spinach and feta, flavored with dill and onion; smoky Black Forest ham with spinach and kasseri cheese; or white and portobella mushrooms mixed with kasseri and emmenthal. These come with a seasonal potato choice or pasta salad and make a nice, light meal.
Or you can opt for one of an ample selection of sandwiches, served on your choice of Artopolis' excellent breads. These go beyond the ordinary to include choices like the Mediterraneo, roasted leg of lamb with mint on rosemary bread, and the Norwegian Crest, featuring house-smoked salmon, watercress, capers and fennel cream on dark, caraway-studded rye. Pair one with the house-made soup of the day or what they call "traditional soup," avgolemeno, Greek-style egg-lemon soup, an exemplary version - thick, lemony and full of chunks of chicken.
There's also an array of salads, such as a lettuce-free Greek country vegetable salad of sliced cucumber, tomatoes, peppers, onion, olives and chunks of feta cheese, and entree salads like frutti di mare, with marinated shrimp octopus and squid. Ten different pizzas come out of the wood-fired oven, with thinly rolled, slightly chewy, breadlike crusts. You can get everything from a fairly traditional Italian-style tomato-basil-mozzarella margherita (albeit with a crumble of Greek manouri cheese) to a Hawaiian version topped with pineapple and smoked ham. I recommend the Olympian pizza as befitting Greektown: Fragrant with roasted garlic, it's covered with thin slices of nicely spiced lamb, roasted eggplant and tomato, with mozzarella and a blanket of pungent feta, sprinkled with green onions. At lunch, Artopolis also serves small deep-dish pizzas.
If you're looking for heartier fare, the wood-burning oven also turns out some traditional Greek specialties. There's a rotating list of specials plus such everyday offerings as a casserole of yuvetsaki, braised beef with orzo and cheese; roast leg of lamb; and chicken riganatti, a roast half chicken on the bone. Here we're getting back to the realm of the one big kitchen. The chicken, for example, is tender, flavorful with herbs and served with well-roasted potatoes and vegetables, but any place in Greektown can do it as well and some do it better. Still, you nearly always see people at the counter ordering takeout in Greek.
Do save room for dessert. Along with traditional, honeyed Greek pastries like baklava and loukoumades, Artopolis offers a wide variety of European-style desserts: rich mousse cakes, chocolate eclairs, fresh fruit tarts and more. I haven't had a bad one yet. You can get an espresso or cappuccino to go with it, but they brew a fine cup of rich, thick Greek coffee. Another drink worth trying is the "Vissinada Refreshment" mixed from sour-cherry syrup and sparkling water.
Before you go, take a look around at the intriguing Greek products for sale, including candy, olive oil, preserves, wine, spirits and even religious icons.
One of Artopolis' few drawbacks is that it offers no valet parking, so be prepared to hunt for a spot on the street. It also takes reservations only for large groups; you may have to wait for a table at peak hours.
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. Our aim is to describe the overall dining experience while guiding the reader toward the menu's strengths. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.
Artopolis Bakery Cafe & Agora
306 S. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 559-9000, www.artopolischicago.com
Wood-fired Greek specialties, sandwiches and global pastries
Bright, bustling, casual Greektown cafe
Appetizers $2.95 to $9.75; salads and soups $3.25 to $9.95; entrees $6.25 to $12.95; desserts $1.95 to $4.50; wine starts at $5 per glass
Kitchen open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays and until midnight Fridays and Saturdays; open for drinks and desserts to midnight Mondays to Saturdays
Major credit cards; reservations for large groups only
Full bar; street parking only; smoking permitted in bar