Full-On Party at Athens Market

“We never ask for anything in particular. Rosie just brings us what she feels like.”

A plate of Greek meatballs
  • A plate of Greek meatballs

Athens Market

109 F Street, Downtown San Diego

"Kurios arene,” says Dave Rawley.

Dave Rawley, Bible scholar

Dave Rawley, Bible scholar

He’s a Bible scholar carrying three heavy, worn Bibles. At least one’s in classical Greek. He’s been sitting and studying them over his Greek chicken, in the corner of the bar. We get to talking — him, me, and two FBI guys, here at the bar, before he heads out.

“It means, ‘Peace be upon you,’” he says. “‘Kurios’ has many forms. Relates to power. It’s probably the root of ‘cure,’ ‘curate,’ ‘curia.’”

Par for the course here at this lawyers’ hangout, Athens Market Taverna, says Ricardo, who’s sitting a couple of stools down the bar. It’s one of those places that attract interesting people.

“Think of this as an embassy,” he says. “Safe ground. For everybody. So, let’s say that, at one of the courts around us, Judge Jones has just fined you $100,000 for bilking your customers. You come here to drown your sorrows, and he happens to come in after the trial. He’ll probably buy you a drink. You’ve got defense attorneys, business people, federal prosecutors…and, of course, Steven and Tripp, here at the bar, from the FBI. Mary’s created a little UN.”

Man. Feel like a fly on the wall, or maybe a fly swimming in a glass of champagne (this being a classy place). Meaning, out of his depth.

Steven and Tripp look a little young to be FBI.

“He’s kidding,” says Tripp. “We’re actually law students, externs with Judge Whalen. We do research for him on his cases. That’s all. No FBI.”

“Great cover,” says Ricardo. “Good job on that.”

So, yes, there’s a lot of kidding that goes on in here.

Ricardo’s stool

Ricardo’s stool

“Mary” is Mary Pappas (you want to say Mary Poppins), the lady who’s been running this place with her family for 38 years. Jesús “Chuey” Aguilar, her executive chef, has been here 22 years. And, hey, check out Ricardo’s stool — his stool. A brass plaque on the seat reads, “Ricardo Gonzalez, Athens Market V.I.P. Since 1994.”

This is about 5:30 at night, on West F Street, near Horton Plaza at First. When I saw the happy-hour sign in the window (“$5 appetizers, $4 drafts, $5 wells and house wine”), and came in, the place was a tomb. Okay, two guys were at the end of the bar, sipping beers — Steven and Tripp. And there were a few people scattered around the different rooms that stretch through three areas and around the corner into First Street. But it still felt intimate.

I sat at the bar ’cause that’s where happy-hour prices apply. Asked the übersmart gal, Rosalie, for a happy-hour beer. Miller Lite, $3.

As I hemmed and hawed my way through the happy-hour menu, the place filled up, pretty suddenly. Guess it was 5:00 somewhere, and that somewhere was here. Everybody seemed to know everybody. Had a scene developing.

Rosalie with a plate of Greek meatballs

Rosalie with a plate of Greek meatballs

Rosalie brought me my Lite while I was still heads-down in the menu’s happy-hour page. Six items. Spanakopita (“Butter-drizzled filo pockets filled with spinach and cheese”), a feta cheese and olives plate (with pita bread), grape leaves stuffed with ground beef and rice (“covered in a thick chicken broth lemon sauce”), a gyros sampler, Greek meatballs, and a three-dip combo (hummus, tzatziki, and melitzansalata — eggplant and tomatoes).

Rosie — as they all call her — brings the “FBI” boys a plate of meatballs. Looks good. Eight meatballs, plus triangles of pita bread. “We never ask for anything in particular,” says Pitt. “Rosie just brings us what she feels like.”

I order that. Then, getting greedy here, the filo item calls out: spanakopita. Filo pastry can be so light you could blow it away. Dunno how they do it. Plus that spinach and cheese inside should go good with my beer. Even though it’s, uh, Miller Lite. Oh, for a bit more flavor, like the Stone Smoked Porter on tap.

Rosie brings me both plates. Long, stylish china and a white cloth napkin. Fit for a lawyer.

The meatballs have a nice taste of garlic and onions. The yogurty Greek thing of tzatziki sauce and warm triangles of pita bread round out the mix.

It’s all good, and really filling. But the prize of the night goes to the spanakopita. Man, those stuffings are scarcely held in by the feathery, airy-thin, flaky pastry. The spinach and cheese deliver a beautiful taste-ping! when you chew in. For a guy who hated spinach when he was a kid, guess I’ve come a long way.

Chuey the chef

Chuey the chef

By now the place has the buzz of a full-on party, in different segments. People who Ricardo says are real FBI guys crowd the other end of the bar. Then you’ve got judges at tables, defense lawyers at this end of the bar, with lots of to-ing and fro-ing. Mary herself seems to know everyone, and everyone knows her. Same with Chuey. He’s out in his white gear, talking away. And Ricardo — he’s a defense attorney — holds court from “his” stool.

I ask Mary what the most popular dish is. “Our baby octopus,” she says. “Kids love it, too. It’s better than lobster.”

I see it’s $10.50. Not bad, for this upscale place.

But, hey, stretched ye olde budget as far as it’ll pull. Time to pull out.

Pitt reaches out to shake hands goodbye. He and Steven, the judge’s researchers, are also leaving.

Kurios arene,” Pitt says. “‘Peace be with you.’ Hmm…I’ll have to put that in our FBI files. Could be a useful code…”

Kurios arene?” I say. “Sounds like code for ‘Happy Hour at Mary’s.’” ■

The Place: Athens Market Taverna, 109 West F Street (at First Street), 619-234-1955

Happy Hour Prices: All $5 each…spanakopita (filo pockets with spinach, cheese); feta cheese, olives, pita bread; stuffed grape leaves (with ground beef, rice); gyros sampler; Greek meatballs; three-dip combo (hummus, tzatziki, and melitzansalata).

Hours: 11:00 a.m.–4:00 p.m., Monday–Friday; dinner, 4:00–10:00 p.m., Monday–Saturday; closed Sundays

Happy Hour: 3:30–6:30 p.m., Monday–Friday

Buses: 11, or all downtown

Nearest bus stops: Front and F (southbound), First and F (northbound); other buses, Broadway and First

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