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183 Victoria Avenue, Albert Park, 9699 5618
My score: 3.5/5
The bread mop test never lies. Look around at Stavros: pita is used to sponge up the last of the lemony calamari; crusty white bread cleans the dips dish of silky, smoky baba ghanoush; olive bread is dunked into the rich juices of braised goat. If the food wasn’t delicious, none of this would happen.
Stavros Tavern, 36 years and 4 months old, is unconcerned with innovation. That’s not the same as not caring about being good. The chunky timber tables and chairs, the archival sun-drenched images of Greece on brown brick walls, a menu that ticks off saganaki, souvlaki and spanakopita are all unembarrassedly old-school. Genial owner Stavros Abougelis, 65 years and slowing a little (though still vigorous in the moustache department), oversees a smooth fleet of longstanding waiters, guys who are happy to help with ordering, change portion sizes to help craft a balanced meal, and who may even charge corkage by taxing a few sips of your good bottle of red. Chef Theo Stavrinos worked here 30 years ago and has been back for a year. Continuity is a beautiful thing.
As in 1979, when the tavern opened, the food is authentic. “It’s like my mother cooked,” says Stavros. “I’m never going to change the recipe for moussaka, and you’re never going to get a chocolate-coated scallop in my restaurant.” Thank goodness. Instead, you get house-rolled vine leaves, grilled calamari ‘pikantiko’ slathered with olive tapenade, salad topped with a big slab of fetta, generous platters of char-grilled and spit-roasted meat, and desserts such as galaktoboureko, semolina custard sandwiched by syrup-soaked filo, as sturdy and comforting as a Greek yia yia (grandmother). Everything is served on plates as bright as white-washed island villages and heavy as car tyres.
The specials board roams beyond bedrock classics without reinventing any wheels. That’s where you may find haloumi melted over lamb sausage with glossy beetroot reduction, simple grilled quail with soft eggplant, and goat stew, braised all day so it drops from the bone if you so much as look at it sternly, with both mash and roasted root vegetables on hand for soaking up the juices. Of course, you’re also likely to do as most customers do, and embark on a bread mop test of your own.
See their website.
More Old School:
Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar, 66 Bourke Street, Melbourne, 9662 1885.
Melbourne has changed a lot since 1954 but it’s steady as she goes at this classic Italian espresso bar.
Great Northern Hotel, 644 Rathdowne Street, Carlton North, 9380 9569.
Pub classics such as chicken parmigiana and steak sandwich share billing with beer-spiked pulled pork and Cajun wings. The beer garden is shady and spacious.
Golden Dragon Palace, 363 Manningham Road, Lower Templestowe, 9852 4087.
From prawn toast to banana fritters, this recently renovated restaurant has all the Canto-classics.
First published in The Age, February 7th, 2016.