If I were president, I’d brand November as National Belly Month, with our annual Thanksgiving feast the main event and “stuffing” a key word in more ways than one. If you have had enough of the bird and its many iterations — turkey sandwich, turkey tetrazzini, turkey soup — try another cuisine that conjures an association with the taste of sun and sea instead of the chill of impending winter. Go Greek.
The flavors of the Mediterranean provide a welcome change of pace at this time of year, and nowhere in Centre County is that better expressed than at The Greek on Clinton Avenue in the Overlook Heights neighborhood of State College.
And if you go on a Friday evening, you might hear the rhythmic beating of drums and the higher pitched jingle of zils, finger cymbals, layered over the plaintive call of a lyrical flute-like ney.
If you enter the restaurant during the half-hour dance performances that take place at 6:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., watch out as you climb the stairs to the main dining room. Belly dancer Shannon Bishop might sweep down the steps, skirts swirling and zils keeping time with the music as she dances between the tables and the bar on the entry level of the surprisingly spacious restaurant retrofitted into a former suburban ranch house.
Bar? Belly dance? Central Pennsylvania? Yes — all these elements coexist in an invigorating arena where you can dip triangles of pita into smoky eggplant dip and snack on sizzling grilled, marinated octopus while you sip your glass of wine amid murals that evoke the ancient culture of the cradle of Western civilization.
John Dimakopoulos, co-owner of The Greek with his wife Lisa, is from Volos, a port city for the agricultural region of Greece, the central countryside 200 miles north of Athens famous for its monasteries that date to the 12th century AD.
The gravity defying stone eyries perch on monolithic pillars on the northwestern edge of the Plain of Thessaly where timeless villages maintain a pace of life that hasn’t changed for centuries. Family, food and festivities celebrated with incomparable local foodstuffs provide a central theme of life.
Dimakopoulos brings that sensibility to the table at his restaurants (he also owns the two locations of the Original Waffle Shop on North Atherton Street and West College Avenue). His feta cheese is imported directly from his hometown and is a creamy, mild version that bears little resemblance to the salty, dry feta that dominates the American market. His olive oil, oregano and yogurt are also imported directly and give his simply prepared dishes the authentic flavor of his homeland.
Always eager to engage with his customers, Dimakopoulos has added some interesting perks for their enjoyment at this evening roost, open for dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. six nights a week.
University Wine Company, owned and operated by Jeff Proch, has an inviting bar in the entry way of The Greek that is the tasting room for the relatively new business venture. Proch is from a wine-making family — his father, Jinx, worked at a local winery as the manager for 12 years — and Jeff learned how to make wine there. The 34-year-old State College native studied business management at Bucknell, but was uninspired when he worked in finance on Wall Street. He launched his own U-Freeze Wine Slush line in 2011to appeal to a new generation of wine enthusiasts who wanted a casual, fun refresher for a hot summer day. He has moved on to create a line of bottled varietals that won three silver medals and one bronze medal for the 2014 vintage at last year’s Farm Show.
Another perk is Shannon Bishop and her dance performances that beguile folks of every age. It’s impossible to not at least clap for Bishop while she performs and many people at the tables jump up and join her.
“I love when people join me on the dance floor,” says the sparkling entertainer, with a gemstone studding her navel that blinks as she shimmies joyfully to the music. “In the Middle East, it is very common for people to join in the dance and there is a community spirit to a performance. It’s not like dancing on a stage; you are on the floor with the people.”
Bishop has been studying the art of Middle Eastern dance since 2003 and specializes in Egyptian dance. She recently returned from Egypt where she took advanced master classes — and stocked up on her costumes, which are clearly not from any Pennsylvania designer. Director of the Pepper Lotus Dance Ensemble, Bishop also gives lessons at her studios, Black Cat and Movement Arts, which are both located in State College.
If you are planning to go to The Greek while Bishop is performing, it is best to arrive by 6 p.m. so that you can enjoy a full array of tasty meze, or appetizers, during the show which includes deft moves that all the efficient servers make to dodge props — like a scimitar or tahtib stick — that might be flailing about in the dining room spectacle.
After your appetizers and the first set, you can pace yourself for what you want next keeping in mind that many dishes are best shared so you can try more flavors. The chicken avgolemono soup, rich with egg and bright with lemon, and the moussaka are traditional favorites, both recipes from Dimakopoulos’ cousin, Thanassis Dimakopoulos, a professional chef in Greece who came over for the opening five years ago and stayed for several months, training the staff — which included both Dimakopoulos’ sons, Ryan and Jason.
If your belly is feeling too full these days, lighten it up at The Greek by joining Bishop as she snakes her way through the dining room, both upstairs and downstairs, and enjoy some authentic Greek specialties. You will see why it is a neighborhood favorite.
Location: 102 E. Clinton Ave., State College
Hours: 5-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday
The Greek allows patrons to bring in their own beer or wine — or ouzo — but you can also purchase wine by the glass or bottle from University Wine Company located on site.