Upstairs at Athens Grill, servers hand over freshly grilled pitas in paper-lined baskets. Behind them, a cylinder of lamb and beef sausage that’s still frozen inside spins on a vertical rotisserie, slowly dripping fat onto a tray below.
Downstairs, Athens’ grinders, mixers and stuffers turn lamb, beef, black pepper and oregano into the gyros Madison has loved for more than four decades.
Athens Grill, a remarkably good new fast casual Greek American spot in Westport near Waunakee, is the latest incarnation of a legacy that began in the early 1970s on State Street.
Gus Kyriakopoulos and Gus Paras developed this gyro, and the recipe is the same today — maybe even better, thanks to the energy of a new young owner.
Middleton-raised chef Andy Ziegler has taken the brand established by Kyriakopoulos and coaxed it into 2018. Though “farm to table” has all but lost its high-end cachet, it’s still rare to see this level of quality to price balance, especially outside the city. Add Athens to the very short list that includes Pizza Brutta in Middleton and Cow and Quince in New Glarus.
The difference is in the details. The meat on Athens’ gyros ($7-$8) is tender, never chewy or greasy. Sheep’s milk feta tastes creamy and fresh, unlike chalky, sour imitators.
Lightly fruity Greek olive oil in lemon and red wine vinaigrettes has no hint of bitterness. Cumin, coriander and cilantro in creamy yogurt sauce give it the ring of Indian raita. Chicken wings ($8/half dozen), a burnished brown pile of flats and drummies, get a sprinkling of za’atar, a nutty blend of sesame, thyme and sumac.
That all of this can be ordered off a digital menu board just like the ones at Culver’s is a bit of delightful cognitive dissonance. That feeling intensifies with the sound of bartenders mixing ingredients like cynar, Cocchi Americano and ouzo above a polished walnut bar in the next room.
“This is my first restaurant that is not fine dining,” said Ziegler, who has local credits at L’Etoile (where he met Athens’ baker, Josh Wright) and Nostrano (chef/owner Tim Dahl has been working with Athens as a consultant).
“The meat is more consistent than it’s ever been … it’s down to the gram every time,” Ziegler said. “I spent a lot of time developing charcuterie programs.”
The restaurant side of Athens opened officially in mid-December 2017 after a summer of construction. While the building went up, the Athens food truck served gyros and steak tacos at a parking lot near its former home in a Shell gas station off Highway M.
The gyro is still the main thing here. The classic is a thing of wonderful simplicity, set off by well-charred pita, sweet raw onions and best-case-scenario-in-February slices of fresh tomato.
Those who venture outside the main event will be rewarded, though, with juicy grilled chicken ($7) topped with confit tomato or eggplant ($7), aggressively charred atop spicy giardiniera hummus.
A gyro burger ($8) takes Athens’ smashed patty and puts gyro meat on it where bacon would normally go, adding whipped feta and tzatziki to make it good and messy. Lamb burgers are great but this burger is better, especially on Wright’s soft sesame seed bun.
Athens doesn’t sleep on the veggie options, either. A Mediterranean grain salad ($7) flouts the basic truth of fast food, namely that any attempt to order “healthy” means a sad date with some flaccid lettuce.
Ziegler uses the Goldilocks of bulgur — more substantial than the little stuff in tabbouleh, not so big it gets caught in your teeth — with crunchy toasted pepitas, roasted squash and a red wine vinaigrette that’s bright, not sharp. Chickpeas complete the protein and crisps of fried kale add texture. Would that all vegan food had this much game.
Athens’ golden phyllo, worked by Wright, flakes off in shards on fat triangles of spanakopita ($4.25) and little bars of honeyed baklava ($3). A shower of tazatziki and fresh herbs gives golden tavern-style fries ($5) a tangy lift.
Before the bar snacks menu rolls out, an order of any (or all) of these will keep a person happy alongside one of Athens’ 10 craft taps, recently featuring brews from Toppling Goliath in Decorah, Iowa and Metropolitan Brewing out of Chicago.
Athens does have a couple of Greek wines, but the cocktail program should turn heads faster. These cocktails are strong, underpriced and generally well-balanced, even edging at times towards bitter. The Thistle Whet Your Whistle ($7), built with rum and a Campari-like aperitivo called Cappelletti, is made for the snowbound Negroni lover.
Athens Grill both is and isn’t what it looks like. Turn one way and it’s a fast food place with a soda machine and a grab-and-go retail case. Spin the other direction and it’s a cocktail bar and contemporary dinner spot where sauces for the chicken wings are made with sambal (chili garlic paste) and zhoug (a spicy Israeli herb sauce).
Yet it all works. As the seasons change, Ziegler wants to add radishes and pea shoots from local farms, changing up the specials while keeping the standards constant.
“We want everybody to know they can get the thing they want,” Ziegler said. “80 percent of our sales are gyros. But at the same time, we want them to be like, ‘Oh, you’re running a special today?’ We intend to use the seasonal variation here in Wisconsin to make that happen.”
Ziegler believes the trend for restaurants is moving this direction, toward faster, simpler food that’s made well but still accessible.
“With foresight, planning and training you can have good handmade quality products and make them affordable,” Ziegler said. “As long as you don’t crazy overcomplicate things.”