Friendly Vios hums with the good things in life
Seattle Times restaurant critic
Part cafe, part Mediterranean market, part Romper Room, part community center, Vios — Greek for "life" — speaks in many ways to that translation.
Sit here on an autumn morning and commune with a buttery slice of pear coffeecake. Breakfast on granola topped with thick yogurt. Stare out at the stately hardwood trees that line this quiet stretch of East Capitol Hill. Know that life is good.
Stop by during the afternoon rush. Observe the kitchen crew as they dish up baba ghanouj and hummus or cumin-scented garbanzo beans with tiny bites of octopus. See them crafting the creative sandwiches that draw stroller-pushing moms, Carhartt-wearing tradesman and relaxed retirees who eat in, take out and call this place their own. Appreciate life's workaday rhythms.
Watch neighbors popping in to buy milk and imported cheese, inspect bushels of local produce, peruse the wine racks and shelves filled with specialty foodstuffs. Note that life is not best sustained by fast-food culture.
Show up for dinner, when the vast children's play area in the rear of this spacious room resembles a Montessori preschool. Happy kiddies meet, greet and eat while their parents share mezze or Greek "family-style" meals. Seated nearby, friends and strangers share communal tables and suggestions ("You haven't lived 'til you've tried this incredible lentil soup!" "And you haven't lived 'til you've tried the rice pudding!"). Learn, firsthand, that life is more fun when it's not spent alone.
Now look for the man behind the mission. Thomas Soukakos can be found moving from kitchen to table in a faded print apron, greeting old friends and making new ones, offering sustenance while weaving his way, once again, into the fabric of this Capitol Hill community: proof that life, most definitely, goes on.
For more than a decade, Soukakos owned El Greco, a popular Broadway bistro. In 2002, devastated by the postpartum-depression-induced suicide of his wife, Carol, with their infant son to raise and a broken heart to mend, Soukakos sold his restaurant. Last spring, ready to start over, he opened Vios.
By day, the place is self-service. Scan the blackboard menus, note the specials. Breakfast segues into lunch at 11:30. If you want a cold drink, nab it from the fridge. If you want a latte, pray it will be made by the darling tattooed latte artist whose cuppa joe is a caffeinated dream. Be sure to have something sweet, especially if Julie, the talented house baker and floor manager, is offering a berry upside-down cake or her glorious salute to Greece, galactobouriko — semolina custard layered with delicate phyllo.
Order at the counter, pay now or later, help yourself to water, napkins and silverware (on the sideboard to the left) and find a seat. Wait patiently. When one of the friendly service crew stands midroom and yells your name, wave.
The short list of sandwiches offered at lunch ($5.75-$7.75) — wrapped in grilled pita or built with a sturdy baguette — have a distinctly Mediterranean accent. Souvlaki, the classic Greek roll-up, is simple and superb with its marinated lamb (or chicken) laved with tzatziki. You'll shout "Holy cow!" after biting into a burger, though this is ground lamb, paired with sweet tomato marmalade, caramelized onions and zucchini pickle wrapped in warm pita. Vegetarians will appreciate roasted eggplant, salty slabs of fresh mozzarella, fresh basil and a sweet-pepper relish offered on baguette.
Grilled fresh tuna, with capers, mint, slow-roasted tomatoes and caramelized onions, wins best of sandwich show. Most in need of improvement is the thin-sliced pork loin with fennel and garlic greens. On my visit, it went wanting for fennel and garlic and cried out for salt, as did the vapid mushroom soup sampled alongside it ($3.50 cup).
Vios recently began offering dinner, and with it table service. Take some time to inspect the well-stocked retail wine rack and treat yourself to a bottle. Bring it back to the table. The server will uncork it, rustle up some wine glasses and pour, adding a $10 corkage plus the cost of the wine to your bill: a fair fee by restaurant standards.
At dinner you can compose a terrific meal by choosing among a dozen mezze (small plates $4-$9): say, a Greek salad, a trio of Med spreads, plus two grilled lamb chops kissed with garlic, thyme and sumac or keftethes (heavenly scented Greek meatballs) with a side of oven-roasted potatoes.
Or you can opt for the family-style platters ($19-$26 per person). On a recent lunch visit, the blackboard listed the previous night's offering, and it was enough to make a hungry woman drool: a mezze platter with pickled octopus, golden-beet salad, skordalia and bruschetta followed by prawns baked with ouzo, tomato, fennel and feta, served with parsley orzo ($20).
The family-style dinner I shared with friends and family ($23/per person) included a swell mezze plate (flaky spanakopita, butterbean and walnut salad tossed with pomegranate seeds, marinated mushrooms, roasted pasilla peppers and kalamatas). But the main course — hunks of roasted lamb in a white-gravy-ish avgolemono missing its lemon lift — was a disappointment.
Not that we cared, really. Wine in hand, our kids playing nearby, the room humming with happy diners. Now that's life.
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company