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It's all Greek to me: Restaurants differ in atmosphere but offer similar cuisine

Editor's Note: This story is part of an occasional series focusing on the area's ethnic eateries.

Heels click-clack on a white stone floor as servers hustle about with trays of delicacies. Stoic white pillars point upwards toward a starry sky ceiling. The sweet scent of olive oil, lemon and garlic lingers in the air at Kyma, a Greek restaurant in Atlanta.

Across town, a belly dancer hops by, tossing napkins in her wake. A line of patrons tramp over said napkins, holding hands and kicking their legs as the dance procession passes. Summer Sonner laughs as she watches the scene. She wanted a lively night out with the girls. And it was a lively night out she got.

"I wanted something just so fun, we would never forget it," she said.

For Sonner, it was an uncommon evening. For Taverna Plaka, it was just a night as usual.

At Athens Kouzzina in Lawrenceville, the atmosphere is more subdued, but never dull. There are no belly dancers or iconic pillars, but there is lively music and a welcoming staff.

While these three restaurants offer completely different atmospheres, they are tied together with the common thread of good food, friendly faces and heritage.

"There are many levels of Greek dining, and they all feature great hospitality. Currently in the Greek dining world, there is a very big trend happening of mixing different dining styles," said Pano I. Karatassos, executive chef of Kyma. "Like here at Kyma, we are doing the traditional Greek dishes with a modern twist. But no matter what kind of food is served in a Greek restaurant, you will almost always find hospitality."

Traditional Greek cuisine closely follows the Mediterranean diet, and staple ingredients include olive oil, basil, capers, lemon, Feta cheese and grilled meats - particularly lamb. Because Greece is surrounded mostly by water, seafood is also a menu mainstay. Fried calamari, seared octopus and grilled fish are particularly tasty, and healthy, dishes, Karatassos said.

"Absolutely, the Mediterranean diet is the healthiest in the world," he said. "Per capita, Greeks live longer than in any other country. A lot has to do with the lifestyle, and a lot can be contributed to their healthy diet."

Among the most famed specialties of Greek cuisine is the gyro, pronounced year-o. The wrap sandwich features a beef-lamb meat mixture, which is roasted, wrapped in pita flatbread, and topped with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and tzatziki sauce.

"Aside from the Greek salad, the gyro is our top seller," said George Vasilos, owner of Athens Kouzzina. "It's what Greeks have kind of become known for."

Not as mainstream as gyros but hugely popular in Greek households are casseroles of mousaka - layered eggplant, ground beef, potatoes and creamy bechamel sauce - and pastitsio, a lasagna of noodles, ground beef, and bechamel and tomato sauces. Spanakopita, a layered phyllo dough, Feta cheese and creamed spinach dish, is also a signature.

"You might find that the recipes change from home to home, but the basic concept of the casseroles are the same," said Taso Costarides, manager of Athens Kouzzina,

Ozzo, a strong, distilled wine made from the grape stem, and Methos, a rich, Greek lager, are top choices for drinks to pair with meals, Costarides said.

Then, of course, there are the sweet endings. The best known Greek dessert is baklava, a pastry filled with phyllo dough, nuts and honey.

"Even people who don't know anything about Greek food, they know about baklava," Vasilos said. "It's the perfect ending to the perfect Greek meal, but it's kind of hard to say. It's true, many Greek dishes are hard to say. But they are so good to eat."

SideBar: If you go

Area Greek restaurants

' Kyma, 3085 Piedmont Road, Atlanta. Call 404-262-0702 or visit www.buckheadrestaurants.com/kyma.

' Athens Kouzzina, 2205 Pleasant Hill Road, Duluth; 5900 Sugarloaf Parkway, Lawrenceville. Call 770-813-1396 or 678-847-0150, or visit www.athenskouzzina.com.

' Taverna Plaka, 2196 Cheshire Bridge Road, Atlanta. Call 404-636-2284 or visit www.tavernaplakaatlanta.com.

' Uptown Cafe Mediterranean Grill, 117 Perry St., Lawrenceville. Call 770-995-0805.

' Messina's Mediterranean Cuisine, 4075 Lawrenceville Highway, Lilburn. Call 770-935-9990.

' Blu Greek Taverna, 26 Mill St., Marietta. Call 770-429-4096 or visit www.blugreektaverna.com.

' Avra Greek Tavern, 794 Juniper St., Atlanta. Call 404-892-8890 or visit www.avragreektavern.com.