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Fearless Critic restaurant review
Greek, Sandwiches
Counter service

Mon–Sat 11:00am–11:30pm
Sun 11:00am–10:30pm

Features Outdoor dining, veg-friendly
Bar Beer, wine
Credit cards Visa, MC, AmEx


1612 20th St. NW
Washington, DC
(202) 387-8555
Zorba’s Café
A Greek restaurant whose menu globetrots a bit too much for its own good

The infinitely popular Zorba’s may be named after a hero from Crete, but its cuisine isn’t limited to the island’s (or even Greece’s) dishes; in fact, the restaurant serves falafel, subs, and pizza, and its staff is mostly Mexican (instead of tahini, oil, or flakes of red pepper, the condiments table holds ketchup and Castillo-brand hot sauce). There’s very little that’s Greek about it. In other words, Zorba’s seems to fall easily into the “typical Greek-American place” category.

But upon closer examination, Zorba’s is a little more difficult to pin down. Few of the Greek-style dishes are oversized, as they tend to be in many Greek-run American diners, and many are rendered quite tastily. Carafes of table wine, a cramped interior with painted scenes of fishing villages, and equally tight-knit outdoor seating seem to add to the island taverna effect, and make the term “diner” seem altogether inappropriate. Although the interior and exterior décor is café-style, with patio seating and umbrellas, there’s no table service at all—you place your order at the counter, and receive your meal and drink on a blue plastic tray.

And unlike Crete’s tavernas, Zorba’s features no fish dishes. Its menu choices are limited to the traditional street fare of falafel and gyros, all of which are wrapped in small, unremarkable pita bread—the pita tends to be soft but not particularly flavorful. When filled with falafel—the patties are on the mushy side, but the taste of herbs and chickpeas is fresh—and doused in tahini sauce, the pitas sometimes do fall apart, leaving you no choice but to stab at your food with a plastic fork and hope the paper plate does not fall entirely to pieces.

But what most people order—and what you should, too, probably—is the gyro sandwich or salad; the gyro meat is extraordinarily flavorful and well-tended here. Zorba’s lentil soup is also remarkably good: it is creamy, a little bit spicy, and served with a wedge of fresh lemon, whose acidic bite offers due complement to the more woody lentil flavor. Less successful are the French fries, which are little more than chubby, soggy, and undersalted wedges of potato.

Is Zorba’s just a pleasant spot to gather outside over inexpensive drinks and middling pan-Mediterranean fare? Clearly, it’s more than that. Clearly, its inordinate popularity is not arbitrary. Clearly, there’s something about this place—and it’s not the seasoning on the gyros, or the paintings on the walls—that strikes a nerve with the culinary consciousness of the city. Sometimes, after a long day at work—or 600 pages of food criticism—all you want to do is sit down for a cold beer and an okay gyro. Sometimes there’s just an ineffable placeness of a place that seems to mock the notion of trying to quantify its food, its feel, its ranking. Sometimes the food critics don’t have all the answers.

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