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Friday, February 13, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Everyone has something good to say about Leena's

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Leena's Cafe


17732 15th Ave. N.E., Shoreline; 206-364-4919

American/diner

$

**

Reservations: not accepted.

Hours: 6:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Sundays.

Prices: Breakfast $3.95-$11.95, lunch entrees (soup or salad included) $6.95-$9.95, dinner entrees (soup or salad and dessert included) $7.95-$15.95, burgers/sandwiches/subs (soup, salad or cottage cheese included) $4.95-$8.95.

Sound: moderate.

Parking: adjoining lot.

No alcohol / credit cards: AE, MC, V / no smoking / no obstacles to access.

"What? You've never eaten at Leena's?" asked my friend Leslie. A former Shoreline resident, she'd moved away from her favorite breakfast spot years ago but returns to bask in the company of off-duty firefighters and friendly strangers while sitting at the counter knocking back pancakes and bacon.

No, I hadn't eaten at Leena's. Not until I got a call from a pal from out-of-town — a restaurant critic, no less. "Meet you at Leena's," she said. It's her venue-of-choice when she's in Shoreline visiting her father-in-law, one of a multitude of elderly regulars who haunt the place morning, noon and night.

"Say, do you know the folks who own Leena's?" I asked my neighbor Marco the Greek. "Sure," he said, just as I'd anticipated. "Do they still make great fish and chips?" Though he'd never been to Leena's, he knew the Athan family from church — and from their earlier restaurant ventures, Val's Cafe in Phinney Ridge and the Wagon Stop Inn on Aurora. And whaddaya know? He was right about those big batons of halibut fillet, fried up clean and crisp: They're terrific.

Everyone, it seems, has something good to say about Leena's, a diner serving old-fashioned American food with a Greek accent. Count me among them.

Here in the Northwest, where restaurants are likened to theater, espresso drinks are seen as a diners' God-given right and $10 appetizers are the norm, there will always be room for places like Leena's. The friendly, efficient waitresses wear black aprons and matching shoes; Farmer Brothers coffee is poured hot, fast and frequently; and 10 bucks buys a three-course dinner.

You want a beer? Sorry. But if you want a root-beer float to go along with your patty melt or BLT, they've got you covered. You want a whine? Don't mind if I do: They serve margarine with their pancakes and mustard in plastic packets. So what? Get over it. I did.

In a low-slung building perched next to the Eagles Club, family matriarch Voula Athan runs the cleanest, tightest ship in and around North City. That's her son Nick in the kitchen, visible through a cut-out window where ketchup and Tabasco bottles stand like soldiers ready for battle as he and his swift crew stuff omelets, flip burgers, chicken-fry steaks and keep their customers satisfied.

Nick and his wife, Athina — who can slice banana-cream pie with the best of them — have owned the place for a decade. They named it for their daughter, whose gorgeous photos, along with her gorgeous little brother's, decorate the wall near the vestibule (where you may stand waiting on weekends) and behind the cash register (where you settle the bill before leaving). Two years ago, Leena's doubled in size after annexing the store next door.

You can start your day right (or end it, for that matter) with Vasili's omelet, offering a full complement of feta cheese and spinach matched with bacon, green onion and zucchini ($7.95). It's one of a dozen omelets served — as are other egg-centric options including the gyro-meat-laden "Crazy Greek" scramble ($8.95) — with hash browns and toast.

There are tricks to making the most of a meal at Leena's. Order your hash browns well-done if you prefer a crisp edge to the snow-white spuds. And if you're eyeing the breaded veal cutlet ($8.95), breaded pork chops ($9.45) or anything else involving meat and mashed potatoes, remember the words "make mine rare." Otherwise you'll be eating like the happy regulars who believe that all's well that ends well-done.

Turn to the rear of the menu for a list of "lighter" meals: a three-egg omelet rather than four; one pork chop rather than two. And if you're starved out of your gourd, try the foot-long meatball sub, which arrives in fat sections, its toasted roll oozing with mozzarella, stuffed with sliced meatballs and sided with a full cup of tomato-meat-sauce for dipping ($8.95).

The next time my mother-in-law is in town, I'm taking her and her Depression-era-honed frugality straight to Leena's, where she'll thrill to a sandwich (I'd steer her toward the lightly grilled Reuben) or hot entree (my vote: lasagna) since the price of each includes soup or salad.

I'd take special joy in pointing out that the soup — minestrone or split pea, if we're lucky — is made with care and that the amount of dressing served alongside the crisp iceberg salad is substantial. She will be pleased that soft drinks come with free refills, that mint-chocolate-chip ice cream wears its "natural" color (green) and that the restrooms are spotless.

I'm sure she wouldn't complain that the liver and onions ($8.95) is thin, tough and breaded, focusing instead on its generosity — look at those bacon strips! And she'd like knowing that if she had a taste for cheesecake pudding rather than ice cream, she could call dibs early and her waitress would be happy to put this fast-mover aside for her.

Leena's, as anyone in Shoreline will tell you, is that kind of place. Long may it reign!

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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