THE SERVER quickly unfolds a portable table, sets down a pan of saganaki -- fried cheese -- and sets it on fire. The blue flame soars upward and he calls out "Opa!" and disappears. From the main dining room, cheerful Greek music from a trio in the back corner wafts over the tables and out the door. By the time it reaches the bougainvillea-twined veranda outside, it's only a muted tinkle.
It's a summer night in Malibu and except for the presence of a valet station around the corner, we could easily fool ourselves into thinking we're somewhere lively in the eastern Mediterranean. No ocean in sight, but the air is beachy-damp and tans and summer dresses are in evidence. Just once this summer, get away to Taverna Tony for an evening of eating and drinking that, except for the American-sized portions, replicates a taverna in Greece.
We scoop up the molten kefalograviera (a Greek sheep's milk cheese) in triangles of hot pita bread tucked under a cloth. It's a delicious appetizer to share, and I could easily eat the whole dish. My three friends and I have already ordered the taverna's popular Greek Feast, and an array of mezes (appetizers) entirely covers the table. The 15 specialties in the $35.95-per-person feast pretty much include all the classics, with the exception of that flaming cheese, which is extra. Now comes the baby octopus we've ordered a la carte, and the server struggles to find an empty spot for it on the table. We diligently nudge dishes closer together and shepherd our water and wine glasses to make room. The taste of the charcoal-grilled octopus with spring onions and kalamata olives tempts us to order a second round.
A night of many tastes
A BITE of that tender, charred octopus simply squirted with a little olive oil and lemon juice is followed by some of the rich taramosalata, a dip made by stirring red carp or cod roe (a.k.a. poor man's caviar) into thick Greek yogurt, and a sip of flowery Asyrtico from Santorini or fragrant Moschofilero white. The lemony hummus has an earthy texture and taste, less oily than some. The roasted eggplant purée dosed with a little sesame oil and garlic works for me too. We nibble, we talk, we drink. It goes like that in every taverna in Greece. A little wine, a little ouzo, an evening spent in desultory conversation in the open air.
There is a Tony, too, who opened this very successful spot 14 years ago. I wouldn't say he is exactly a warm presence, but he does stop in to oversee the place, planting himself at any empty corner table, getting up to greet longtime customers and celebs. The crowd is a mix of summer residents, tourists, college kids and locals looking for something less sleepy than the usual Malibu haunts.
Any Greek feast has to include dolmades, and these tangy pickled grape leaves have a loose stuffing that's more meat and greens than rice, making them lighter than the more typical dense versions. I like the touch of lemon sauce underneath. We've got a decent-enough Greek salad and tabbouleh and lots of everything else left.
"Don't fill up," our svelte Greek waitress cautions, in a motherly fashion. "There's lots more to come."
I could easily stop right here with this array of mezes. It's perfect summer eating, though admittedly, Malibu at night is hardly sweltering. That's why they invented heat lamps. My out-of-town guest, dressed for the beach, will agree to eat outside only if she gets a seat directly underneath a heat lamp. Anything, my dear. Because inside, it's a wild, loud party with voices ricocheting off the walls, hardly dampened by the hanging folk textiles, with the music filling in any cracks in the noise level.
Outside, it's much easier to talk, and more relaxing. With a little imagination, we could be sitting on the veranda of a taverna on one of the Greek islands, though the smooth patina of the terra-cotta tiles and the stripped sapling arbor are a dead giveaway that this was once a Mexican restaurant. A few tall, fat-bellied Cretan pots with characteristic ridges add a Mediterranean note to the decor.
If it's just the two of you, you can still order the feast. Or, maybe even better, especially if you're not much of a meat eater, go with the Vegetarian's Paradise, which is your own Greek vegetarian feast on a plate, a combo plate of meatless mezes plus feta cheese for $21.95. There's also a Taverna combination platter, which loads up on the richer, meatier items for $25.95.
Something for everyone
OUR FEAST is by no means over. We've tried the Greek Feast's lamb and veal sausages (very good with a squeeze of lemon) and the fried calamari (greasy and too doughy). Still to come, a couple of pastas, such as pastichio, which is macaroni layered with ground beef, tomatoes and béchamel sauce embellished with grated cheese and baked in big, deep-dish pans. And finally, souvlaki meats -- boneless chicken and lamb, both roasted in big chunks, the better to wrap up in the warm pita. Neither is that exciting, and both are also a little dry, but that's par for the course with souvlaki.
Despite a couple of missteps, is it any wonder that all those tables of six or eight or 10 inside, some with balloons tied to the chairs, are getting the Greek Feast? It eliminates the confusion of ordering and somewhere there is something for everyone. The food just arrives, in flights. No one is going home hungry. In fact, in my small experiment, we ordered three Greek Feasts for four and it was almost too much -- except that we got only three stuffed grape leaves and three pieces of spanakopita -- we simply cut one of each in half.
The a la carte list offers the advantages of getting just what you like and a few things not offered with the Greek Feast -- appetizers such as the flaming cheese, the octopus, the slightly scorched but delicious meatballs -- and then a huge main course. When my Austrian friend saw a plate go by one night, she stared in disbelief, commenting that it was enough for a family. And it really is. The food is heaped on the plate, not very attractively. Though it gets marks for hearty and abundant, the cooking is very basic and fairly expensive for what you get -- another reason to go with the flow and order the Greek Feast. Choices include quail, rack of lamb, lamb loin and jumbo shrimp in tomato sauce, all quite ordinary.
BUT DESSERTS are another matter. Do save room for the thick house-made yogurt covered with Greece's famous Mt. Hymettus honey and a scattering of walnuts. I could have enjoyed the Athenian cheesecake more without the strawberry sauce dribbled over the top.
Baklava is stuffed with coarsely ground pistachios, walnuts and almonds, a far cry from the beautifully constructed versions from top restaurants and pastry shops in Greece. Ours is soggy too, but somehow disappears; it's ideal for sharing -- one bite apiece. As is the bougatsa, which is semolina custard encased in buttery layers of filo, and the dreamy rice pudding dusted with cinnamon.
As we leave on that Saturday and turn the corner toward the valet station, we can see dancers through the window, arms raised, stepping slowly, ceremoniously to the high, keening music. On a summer night, Taverna Tony feels like a little piece of the Mediterranean. And if somebody famous shows up, well, it's a reminder that you really are in Malibu.
Taverna Tony Rating: * Location: 23410 Civic Center Way (at Cross Creek Road), Malibu; (310) 317-9667; www.tavernatony.com. Ambience: Lively and fun Greek restaurant with live music, occasional belly- dancing, and a breezy bougainvillea-covered outdoor veranda. A Malibu institution, the taverna gets a mix of locals and tourists for its hearty and generous Greek fare. Service: Warm and friendly, though food comes out faster on a weeknight than on busy weekend nights. Price: Dinner appetizers, $8 to $17; pastas, $13 to $20; main courses, $17.95 to $35.95 combination platter, $25.95; Vegetarian's Paradise, $21.95; Greek Feast (15 dishes on separate plates), $35.95 per person, plus $6 for coffee and dessert; desserts, $4 to $7. Best dishes:Taramosalata, lamb and veal sausage, flaming saganaki cheese, dolmades, baby octopus, pastichio, rack of lamb, rice pudding, yogurt with honey and walnuts. Wine list: Basic selection of Greek wines, including Grand Reserve Boutari, along with an uninspired selection of California wines and a handful of overpriced French wines. No outside wine allowed. Best table: In the corner of the outdoor veranda. Details: Open 11:30 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking, $4. Also parking on the street and at Malibu Country Mart. To see a photo gallery, go to latimes.com/food. Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.