In Greek, the word meraki is used to describe "putting your heart and soul into something," philoxenia means "treating guests like old friends" and kefi means "living joyfully in the moment."
I know this because it's written on the walls of Avli Taverna ( 1335 W. Wrightwood Ave.; www.avli.us/ ), the Greek restaurant nestled about 15 minutes walking from the Fullerton stop in Lincoln Park. The three Greek words that were previously mentionedmeraki, philoxenia and kefiare "what we stand for," said Nicole Anderson, a Greek wine expert and the manager of the Lincoln Park restaurant. ( She's a sommelier, but prefers to be called a Greek wine expert because that's her concentration. )
The Lincoln Park location opened in November 2018, courtesy of from chef/owner Louie Alexakis and a group that includes Fox Chicago sportscaster Lou Canellis. (There's Avli Restaurant in Winnetka, and there's a River North location coming soon.) In the development of this location, they really wanted to emulate an authentic Greek tavern, according to Anderson. With exposed white brick, big windows and geometric wall and light fixtures, Avli puts a modern twist on what you might think of when you think "Greek restaurant." Avli even defies the Greek stereotype of blue accents, using black and earth tones instead.
While Avli looks like a small corner tavern, upon entering you can see that it's bigger than perceived, with a considerably large back room and patio seating that stretches almost half the block. In the back room, there's extra seating, and there's a mural featuring the definitions of meraki, philoxenia and kefi. There's also a wall with authentic Greek ingredients like olive oil and lentils for sale in the back.
With one look at the menu, you can tell it's not your average Greek food. (A plus is that the menu offers many gluten-free options.) Anderson assured us that everything down to the lobster spaghetti was authentically Hellenic, with recipes gathered from actual Greek taverns. Anderson started my dining companion and myself with a very spicy feta spread called tirokafteri, along with a Greek village salad and a watermelon salad with creamy manouri cheese, almonds and mint.
Then came the small plates: pork skewers with garlic aioli, zucchini chips and my personal favorite of the threehortopita, a northern Greek-style vegetable filo puff. With so much food for just two people, it was frankly incredible that we were able to eat half of two more entrees. Anderson, ever embodying the hospitality that her restaurant stands for, served us three entrees: the lobster spaghetti, gyro sandwiches, and a half chicken with huge, white beans called "gigantes." I love Mediterranean food so, of course, I loved the gyro. Not being a huge fan of seafood, though, I was surprised to find the spaghetti to be a favorite as well. Unfortunately, we didn't make it to the chicken, but I can say it made for great leftovers.
Out of all the delicious things I just described, I can tell you that the best was yet to come. By far my favorite part of dining at Avli was its caramel baklava ice cream. The dessert consisted of housemade vanilla ice cream surrounding a caramel baklava center, with shredded filo ( or phyllo ) on top. Anderson described it as "deconstructed baklava."
While I didn't drink anything besides the spot's tart homemade lemonade, I did notice Avli's thorough drink menu. Its wines are ranked from crisp to lush, light to tannic, elegant to rustic, pale to vivid, and fine to vibrant. It has not just Greek wine but also Greek spirits and Greek craft brews. There are also cocktails, including the Mykonos Mulea drink with ginger beer, rum and lime and featuring Roots Rakomelo, a Greek liquor.
With a menu that's true to Greek authenticity and an atmosphere balanced in modernity as well as tradition, Avli fully embodies its motto of soul, hospitality and joy. You can feel the heart and passion put into the place, and the attention to detail in everything from the menu to the decor cultivates an atmosphere of respect among server and patron. If you're in the Lincoln Park area, I suggest giving it a try.
Note: Restaurant profiles/events are based on invitations arranged from restaurants and/or firms.