First Taste: The Big Greek Cafe and Thelo Greek Grill
Two good options in Bethesda for diners seeking a taste of Greece
Gyros at The Big Greek Cafe
The Big Greek Cafe and Thelo Greek Grill both opened in June a stone’s throw from each other in Bethesda’s Woodmont Triangle. They both serve classic Greek fare such as lamb chops, moussaka and gyros. But that’s where the similarities end.
The Big Greek Cafe (4806 Rugby Avenue) is the mini-chain’s fourth outpost in MoCo, after the Silver Spring original and locations in Rockville and White Flint. The chain has fast-casual Greek down pat. Everything from the menu to the counter service to the plating is consistent and predictable.
Those are not words I’d use to describe Thelo (8009 Norfolk Avenue). The place is a reflection of multi-tasking owner Yannis Panayotopoulos (who introduces himself as John Panas). Panas serves as head chef, floor manager and overall voluble presence. Our party has just been seated on the patio when Panas stops by to tell us in a not-at-all-sorry voice that he’s already fired the two chefs he hired a few months earlier to help open the place. “They had opinions,” he explained. “I don’t want opinions.” He then promises that he’d soon have a “full restaurant” in place with a menu that isn’t Xeroxed on copy paper. But just when I think I’ve stumbled into an episode of TV chef Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, the food starts coming out. And somehow, defying all expectations, it’s actually pretty good.
The Big Greek Cafe: Clean, fast-casual setup. The brightly lit dining area seats about 30 at well-spaced tables fronting a mural of a sun-washed Greek island.
Thelo: Simple island look with a handful of wooden tables and blue chairs. Plastic tables on the front patio expand capacity by about 50 percent.
Food and drink
The Big Greek Cafe: Stick with the basics. The commercially produced gyros could use a bit more browning, but the meat is freshly carved and flavorful. It comes on a platter for $12.99, a salad for $11.99 or a sandwich for $7.50. The grilled lamb chops are cooked to a perfect medium rare—and a deal at $19.99 for four meaty chops with a Greek salad and a side. If you like battered french fries, you’ll be happy here; they are available plain or “Big Greek” style sprinkled with feta. And if you’re hungry, the strapping brick of moussaka is decent and filling. Avoid the hummus appetizer ($4.95 for a small plastic cup) and the under-cooked green beans.
Thelo: Surprising quality is found amidst the chaos. Take the roasted eggplant dip ($7). Unlike many served elsewhere, it’s not pureed into dull uniformity. The eggplant is hand-chopped and gently mixed with Florina peppers, red onion, parsley and garlic. It’s balanced and lovely. The gyros is made in-house and comes in either beef/lamb or pork varieties. The beef gyros is $17 for a plate or $9 for a sandwich; the pork gyros is $15 for a plate and $8 for a sandwich. Because the meat is hand-stacked on the rotisserie in-house, it doesn’t come off in long crepe paper-like strips. It comes off in tasty chunks. The lamb chops are the equal of Big Greek Cafe although, at $24, not as good a value. And the sides get it half right: the green beans are soft and luscious while the roasted potatoes are bland and under-seasoned.
The Big Greek Cafe knows how to deliver the goods. The counter service is friendly and efficient. The self-serve condiment and drinks area is well-stocked and tidy. The food comes out promptly. Note that midday can be a bit more hectic, when denizens of the National Institutes of Health, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and the new nearby police station pile in for lunch.
Service at Thelo can be an adventure. When we visit, there are two well-meaning servers on duty but everything seems to revolve around Panas and his ability to juggle his various roles. The restaurant also has had issues with menu items not being available, which seems to have improved but not been completely resolved.
Go or skip?
Go to The Big Greek Cafe if you have a hankering for an old-school gyros — especially on Wednesdays when gyros sandwiches are $5—or a modestly-priced lamb chop dinner. Skip if you’re looking for more than a fast-casual experience.
Go to Thelo if you want some idiosyncratic home-style cooking and you can put up with the mishegoss. Go if the restaurant hires (and keeps) some decent kitchen help who can work with Panas. Skip if you’re in any sort of rush or aren’t somewhat flexible in your ordering preferences.