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There’s very little about Papa George, the restaurant that was until recently Pickles on Neil Street, that says “Greek.” In fact, the exterior screams bland American cuisine (a la Pickles), but the fact that the seldom-busy parking lot was overflowing last Friday night attests to how popular this restaurant has become and how, after a rocky start, the food has greatly improved.

The problem of authenticity arises again when entering and seeing essentially Pickles, with a few minor changes — a strip of wall near the ceiling has been painted Mediterranean blue and the tables now have textured blue candleholders. So it’s almost unavoidable to ask: Must a Greek restaurant have white-washed walls and be adorned with Corinthian columns and tchochkes from the old country for the food to be tasty and authentic? In the case of Papa George, the answer is no.

Each meal at Papa George comes with almost over-friendly service and a basket of warm bread. The bread wasn’t terribly memorable, but the olive tapenade — an intensely flavorful spread made primarily with Kalamata olives, which accompanied the bread — was. For appetizers (mezedes), the best value is to pick three or even five options (depending on the size of your group). The calamari was crisp and lemony, the hummus thick with a subtle garlic flavor, the grilled pita smoky, the dolmas (grape leaves stuffed with rice) surprisingly light. For greater entertainment value, order the saganaki, Greek cheese sautéed in brandy right at your tableside. The flames and the waiters yelling “Opa!” surely would never have been found at Pickles and, thus, given the décor, the effect is comical.

There are a wide variety of entrees, all of which come with a choice of two sides, either Greek or American. The grilled meats are all exceptional and reasonably priced: mahi mahi for $13; rib eye for $10 locally-raised lamb for $12. The American sides are good for what they are, but nothing better than what you’d find at a dozen restaurants on North Prospect. Opt instead for the Greek sides, one starch (grilled potatoes or rice pilaf) and one juicy (the gigantes, or giant white beans in a tomato dill sauce, were particularly rich) as it’s easy to feel like the food needs more liquid than the requisite lemon slice can provide.

The specials are scribbled on the chalkboard up front, so pay attention as you walk in. Last Friday pints of Samuel Adams were $2 and the 7 oz. prime rib meal was only $10. If you’re smart about how you order, you can come away with a pretty fantastic Greek meal for under Greektown in Chicago or wait until Papa George decides to renovate, which, given the present state of the interior, would have to be pretty major undertaking.

Papa George Restaurant and Bar
505 South Neil Street (between Healey and Green) in Champaign
Phone: 217.356.1930