Zoe’s Restaurant Cambridge, MA Pub/Cafe
4-Star Pub/Cafe (our ratings)
A diner with breakfast all day and restaurant food, too!
What happens when Bono walks into your restaurant? Nothing, until he’s in the middle of eating and the other patrons suddenly realize who he is, the famous U2 rock star and philanthropist. (Maybe he wasn’t wearing his trademark sunglasses.)
“That’s when I had to come out from the kitchen and try to shoo people away,” Theo Vallas tells me. “I apologized, but Bono said it was okay.”
I’ve never noticed Zoe’s before, except that it replaced the old 1950s futuristic Johnny Rocket, perhaps because it’s at the basement level of a complex in-between Harvard and Central Squares, and I assumed it was a chain because of the corporate crispness of its logo. But I was wrong. It’s a family restaurant, and Theo’s family has a long history of running such places, back to his grandfather in 1951, who opened a place on Stuart Street in Boston and grew it to 4 restaurants. He enjoys the industry, and works hard at it and to find good staff. “You’re as successful as the people around you” he says. There may be another generation of restauranteurs coming.
I can’t help but mention the movie “My Crazy Greek Wedding” and Theo tells me, “All greek families are crazy.” In 1988, presidential candidate and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis was supposed to come to one ot the family restaurants in Boston’s Quincy Market, because he’s Greek and wanted to be seen eating Greek food. So they were mobbed by secret service that day, but he never showed up.
Here at Zoe’s Restaurant, Theo and I have met in a large place that seats more than 100, with greek music playing (think accordions and violins). The place retains the bright colors and layout of Johnny Rocket, which is mainly booth seating (with convenient coat hooks), but there is a row of stools along a diner counter as well. There’s a nice bright window along one wall, with direct sunlight that I actually need to ask that the window shade be lowered so I can withstand. This would really wake you up on a Sunday morning. Countering the kitsch feel is an ugly neon beer sign and an unnecessary television — although it’s set to the news. The photos on the walls are generic, and there’s an Internet music box. An advertisement in the front entrance says they have an iPhone app for ordering food.
“It’s a neighborhood restaurant,” Theo tells me, and it’s especially good for families with kids. “I like to see regular customers return 3-4 times a week, that’s what we’re aiming for.” They serve breakfast all day, and cater to everyone in the diversity of Harvard Square, from tourists to grad students to Natalie Portman, when she was studying at Harvard. They’re known for their baked lamb, a signature dinner dish, and tourkei, an Easter bread.
I try the Baked Lam ($13), “tender lamb braised and then roasted in our special sauce, served with rice and your choice of Garden or Greek salad”. It doesn’t have a deep smell to it, but it comes with a salad that is perfect. By being perfectly dry, the salad is perfectly crisp and there’s a delightfully sharp taste to the feta cheese. It doesn’t need dressing.
I definitely approve of the rice, which is extra soft and poofy, and the smooth lamb falls apart in your mouth. It’s not spicy, but it’s a big meat portion that’s hearty, and comes in a red sauce like a meatball sauce that (see the photo) is greasy enough for some oil to separate out from.
The Turkey Reuben ($8) is “turkey, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing served on grilled dark rye bread”. The sweet potato fries it comes with are yummy, caterpillar cut, and the toasted rye has a great texture. Although the turkey meat is sliced thin, it has a real chew to it, the opposite of slick almost slimy deli meat, thank goodness. I greatly appreciated the real pickle, a really crunchy, deep tasting pickle of high quality.
The menu has real dinner food, too. This is definitely more than just a diner. The Saganaki ($13 with shrimp), is “a fragrant tomato and feta cheese sauce served over rice or pasta”, and it’s remarkable — a wow! — with feta cheese in the sauce. (Although you can also see the extra oil in this sauce.) It tastes completely unique, like a red sauce that I’ve never had before. Is that vinegar I’m tasting?
I’m also wowed by the sweet potato pancakes, with a potent smell that lifts you right up. It’s quite sweet, like a pumpkin pie, and you can really tell that the maple syrup is real. (Theo says that despite the cost he always serves real maple syrup.) And to me it didn’t need any butter, despite the fancy side.
I’m not so keen on the french toast. The “crunchy” variety came with uninteresting bread and bits of nuts and cereals that looked like they would have a crunch, but didn’t. The “greek” variety I just found empty, tasting very puffy, despite the powdered sugar, like eating a pastry donut with too much air in it.
I’m also not won over by the Zoe’s Omelette ($8.79), “tomatoes, baby spinach, buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil.” Although it has a great smell, and I can see the big ingredients, the spinach & tomato, I can’t taste the chunks when I eat. The cheese is tasteless, and the omelette is wet inside, not from runny eggs but from the vegetables being washed, I suppose. In an egg dish any wetness is too much, to me, and the toast was cold. Although admittedly I let the plate sit, I wonder if Zoe’s heats their plates. Still, the hash browns are delicious, not greasy.
Theo made it up to me, though, by serving me the Santa Fe omelette instead ($8.79), “chicken sausage, onions, spinach and jack cheese, topped with salsa” which brought me back. The chicken sausage is sweet, with has apples and syrup built-in, and it’s served piping hot, with pieces of chopped onion that while tiny have a real crunch to them. Like all omelettes, it’s a very heavy meal, yet I appreciate the generous portion of this and everything I tried at Zoe’s
On the way out, I took home a sample of the apple pie, and heated it up at home. Unfortunately, I found it undercooked. The crust was still doughy and the apples, well, some people like their apple pie to have apples with a bite, but I’m in the applesauce camp. I confirmed that they make their own apple pie instead of buying it from a bakery, and presumably everything else in their dessert display case is made in-house as well.
I would give Zoe’s a lower rating as a restaurant, which it resembles, but with the brunch emphasis, diner seating, and neon beer sign it really belongs in our pub/cafe tier (about our ratings) so I’ll give it a solid 4 stars. With a bright atmosphere and some remarkable meals (despite a couple of disappointments) I am glad to recommend not just a brunch but a lunch or dinner at Zoe’s. And if you are lucky, you may get to meet Zoe herself. Zoe’s Restaurant is named for Theo’s daughter, a cute 7-year-old who has a habit of walking from table to table introducing herself to guests with, “Hello, this is my restaurant!”
1105 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA