Athena Greek Taverna1116 Argyle Street,
0141 339 3895
£ – inexpensive
££ – mid-price
£££ – expensive
££££ – very expensive
An Olympian challenge
Review published on 02/03/2010 © Sunday Herald
Not long ago I reviewed an American diner on this street. It shut down before we could even get it in the magazine. Gone for ever, before the photographer could even take a picture. And he was running.
It was the second time it had happened along here. It seems to me this is the most brutal strip for restaurants in Scotland, a sprawling, spilling stretch of boundless optimism and broken hearts that runs along the open retail wound that is Argyle Street between PC World and Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Where, between the buzz of the constantly lit 24-hour shops, the retro designer bars and the hip-hop skateboard joint, endless restaurants spawn, burst into life then disappear before your very eyes. Or so it seems. The strip might look a bit scuzzy but its ever-changing and to drive down here is to pass through a carnival of dreams lit intermittently and entertainingly by the few that succeed and burn tauntingly brightly.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Athena Greek Taverna tonight, where my old friend Tiny Tears and I sit in an almost empty, slightly unatmospheric restaurant with staff hovering while food is summoned from a kitchen deep in the bowels below. Right next door, even early in the week, theyre queuing up to get into one of the strips success stories, Crabshakk. I could see thronging customers silhouetted in the window by the amber glow of success as I walked past earlier. Tough, I suspect, for the other restaurants that sit shoulder to shoulder with it.
In here? Between the dolmades and the meatballs, and just before the delicious freshly made hummus arrives, I ask the American waitress if this had once been the American diner. She pauses. She thinks about it. She doesnt know. It was an Italian last, I think. I think shes right. It might have been the diner before that. Or before that, so brutal does the turnover seem along here.
But what is a nightmare to a restaurant owner is a customers dream. This is also probably the best stretch in the city for interesting, varied and good-value restaurants. If the council pedestrianised it and labelled it Foodsville it would be mobbed. Theres a good Korean just up the road, umpteen Italians, Fanny Trollopes a few doors along and many more all sitting side by side.
There are jumping pubs such as the Ben Nevis and The Goat and a low-light hustle to the street, where the restaurants seem to change every few weeks. Who can complain about that? And now theres the Athena, open just a few months. Whats it like? Greek. And thats rarely a bad thing. The hummus was sensational, garlicky, lemony, punchy and fresh. The dolmades and the meatballs? More workmanlike.
Tiny Tears, who incidentally got her nickname after big bad Alastair Campbell shouted at her when she worked for New Labour, has a moussaka in a huge portion full of flavour and underwritten by a hint of cinammon. I have kleftiko, slow-cooked lamb shank on the bone mastered by the Greeks long before every pub chain on the country cottoned on to it.
Apparently the Athena is run by the grandson of the man who a decade or so ago used to run the hugely successful Athena Taverna on the south side of Glasgow, hence the name. Remember it? Hey, I certainly do. And I also remember that the old mans kleftico was slightly better than tonights offering, more tender perhaps, not quite as dry in parts. But maybe thats just my memory playing tricks. And perhaps ordering a slow-cooked lamb dish early in the week is simply asking for trouble.
Overall, the dishes are hearty, good value and full of flavour. Is that enough to survive along here? Who knows? I hope so. But ultimately only you decide.