Monday, May 21, 2012

Richmond Rave: Stella's

Like the Richmond Symphony post, I've been saving up this one for a while.

Stella's is a Richmond Institution - the current iteration, let's just call it Stella's 3.0, opened last June to much fanfare. A Greek restaurant helmed by an authentic Greek grandmother - Stella Dikos - the food at Stella's is simply to die for. For a little bit of background information about Stella Dikos and the history of the restaurant, check out this article.

My first venture to Stella's was with some co-workers for lunch. Having grown up in a small town in Maryland with no Greek food to speak of, I didn't understand what all the fuss was about. Sure, I'd eaten a fast-food style gyro in my time and even tried some grape leaves (which I found to be disgusting), but I wasn't in to Greek food. Goaded on by my co-workers, I joined them last summer for lunch. It was a fateful day which resulted in me falling in love with Stella's... which is both a bad thing (for my wallet and waistline) and a good thing (Tzatziki sauce - where have you been all my life?).

Since then, I've been back quite a few times including a completely decadent outing with BFF and her husband when they visited us for a weekend in November.

My most recent visit was this past Friday with my dear Work Wife. Work Wife and I shared an office at the Richmond Symphony in which our desks faced each other, so we literally looked at each for 8 hours a day. Luckily, this close proximity led to a loving Work Spouse relationship and not a hate-based Work Enemy. WW left the Symphony in February 2010 (I soldiered on for another year), but we remain close.

If you're going to go to Stella's for dinner, my #1 piece of advice is to make reservations - far in advance. This place is hopping every single night, and the wait can be extremely long (an hour +) if you don't have a reservation. Thank goodness grandma Stella is tech savvy - you can make your reservation pain free at There are no lunch time reservations (except for parties of 6 or more), so arrive just before Noon if you can to get immediate seating.

I find the restaurant itself to be modern yet cozy and comfortable at the same time. It is not a tiny restaurant, but not overly large either. When there are a lot of people during the dinner hour, you are elbow to elbow with your neighbors and it can get loud, but this somehow adds to the ambiance instead of detracting.

When I arrived at 11:45, I had beaten the lunch rush and things were still quiet. I took advantage of the relative sparsity of the crowd and took took some photos.

The bar is a great option for lunch and during Happy Hour (Meze Ora). The cool marble top juxtaposed with the warm, earthy clay pots is just what I'm talking about when I say the place is modern but cozy. The Greek cross motif is a nice touch too.

I'm in love with the beautiful pressed tin ceiling in the dining room. I have always been a sucker for tin ceilings, and the bright polished one at Stella's is just lovely.

But my most favorite thing about Stella's setting is the family-style table that dominates the restaurant. I was glowing with delight as the host sat me at the far end of that table. There is just something so European and friendly about sitting family-style. 

While I waited I checked out the menu even though I knew exactly what I was getting: a Chicken Souvlaki Pita with fried potatoes. I had been anticipating this meal for a full two weeks.

The lunch menu contains the usual suspects: soups, salads and sandwiches. But at Stella's there is a bonus - the Meze (small plates) and Comfort sections. The Meze selection is particularly extensive, with twelve options to choose from including the delicious Keftedes (4 giant homemade beef meatballs), traditional Hummus & Tabouli served with pita, and the absolutely divine Dolmades (Grape Leaves stuffed with rice and herbs).

Remember how I said I hated grape leaves? For months, every time we talked about Stella's in the office, my boss would say "Have you had the grape leaves? You've GOT to try the grape leaves, I'm telling you!" I resisted, recalling my earlier soggy experience with grape leaves. Finally, when BFF and her husband joined Husband and I at Stella's for our evening of decadence, we got an order of grape leaves. And I absolutely loved them. There is nothing mushy about these. They are savory and firm, stuffed with a delicious concoction of rice and herbs. I absolutely insist that should you go to Stella's, you must  get them whether you think  you like grape leaves or not.

Sadly, WW and I did not get any grape leaves last Friday. WW had the day off, so she ordered (quite appropriately) a glass of Stella Artois.

Sadly, I had to refrain from any libations. Stella's has an excellent wine list (including $10 caraffe specials) and a very cool selection of authentic Greek beers, in addition to the ever-popluar and oh-so-fitting Stella Artois. The waiter told us their Stella is always particularly good because they go through it so fast the kegs are always fresh.

After much waffling on the part of WW, who couldn't decide what she wanted, we placed our orders. Our food arrived within 15 minutes and boy did it look delicious:

Chicken Souvlaki Pita ($9)

WW's lunch: Black Kale Salad ($9)
For $9, you get a very good amount of food. We both struggled to finish our respective meals, but powered through like the soliders we are:

I had a little help with the fried potatoes.
My souvlaki was wonderful, if not a little bit messy (as you can see from the above). Once you pick up the pita, you can't put it down again without everything falling apart. The best part of the pita is the homemade tzatziki sauce. Sometimes tzatziki is too bland for me or has too much cucumber, but Stella's is perfect: zingy and cool at the same time.

By the time we had finished, the restaurant was completely packed and we had gained quite a few friends at our table:

All in all, Stella's is, I think, my favorite restaurant in Richmond. When an out-of-town guest comes, my first suggestion for dinner is Stella's. Birthday dinner? Stella's. Mother's Day? Stella's. A lunch date? Stella's.

Do I sound like a broken record yet?

The lowdown:
  • Parking is plentiful - there is a small lot behind the restaurant, accessible via the alley, and plenty of street spots.
  • Make reservations for dinner (at least two weeks in advance if possible) and arrive a little bit early for lunch if you need to be seated immediately.
  • Can be budget friendly (my lunch on Friday was $9 not including tip) or budget busting (I believe we spent well over $200 for the night of extravagence in November, but that included caraffe(s) of wine, multiple appetizers, dinner entrees, and desserts for 4). But it will be worth every penny, I assure you. 
  • Grape leaves are a must.
  • Try out the family-style table if you are daring enough.
  • Service is excellent but sometimes on the slow side. If you need a quick lunch, you generally won't find it here.
  • Stella's is a perfect example of one of my reasons to run - I wouldn't be able to enjoy this delicious but definitely not diet-friendly food if I didn't earn those extra calories through some running.

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