As roads go, Northwest 85th Street is more of a means than an end, a convenient way to get somewhere else rather than a destination in itself.
Emotionally and aesthetically, the four-lane arterial is more Greenwood than Ballard, although both neighborhoods can claim its mostly commercial eastern half.
One hundred years ago, most of the area was a bog, too soggy to build on, and used as a cemetery. It was, for half of the 1900s, the northern boundary of the city of Seattle, and it still feels like that today. Sidewalks disappear north of 85th. So do tall trees and leafy blocks. Street parking abounds and parking lots are huge. The feel of the area is more Shoreline than Seattle. The city’s cultural makeover of the last 20 years seems to have ended, for the moment, right about here.
The intersection of 85th and Greenwood Avenue is where gentrification appears to have ended its crawl. While not in the league of downtown Ballard, the heart of Greenwood also has a few mod condo and apartment complexes with evocative names detached of meaning, like "Sapphire" and the "Sedges at Piper Village." There is a theater (Taproot) and a gastro-pub (Naked City) and one of many remodeled Safeway supermarkets.
To the west is the frontier. Taking a turn in that direction on Northwest 85th is like taking a turn into 1978. No part of these blocks resemble New York or Los Angeles or any other city Seattle secretly — or not so secretly — aspires to be.
The stores and markets on Northwest 85th are swayed toward the down-market crowd, people who do not eat artisanal pizza, people who prefer to wash their cars themselves, purchase their socks by the six-pack, and be waited on by servers who are not 10 times more attractive than they are. Eating options on this strip are limited and low on curb appeal. Gorditos, the popular burrito emporium, is here. The Japanese restaurant Mori with its uninviting, almost intimidating storefront, is a short distance away.
Farther west, there is an even more forlorn looking eatery called Georgia’s Greek Restaurant, which shares a parking lot with a public laundry that doubles as a mailbox rental. The low, boxy, ramshackle building that houses Georgia’s looks lifeless and colorless, although, as it turns out, Georgia’s food is a find.
Georgia’s is named after the mother of the owner, Greek-born Laki Kazakos, a mechanic by training who ran an auto-repair shop called Lucky’s Auto Men for years in the same building. About 20 years ago, he carved out a corner of the auto shop so that his mother could run a Greek deli and grocery out of it (his parents had previously operated a diner in downtown Seattle). The deli prospered, leading Laki to close the auto shop and turn it into a dining room, and so the restaurant was born.
The two halves of Georgia’s are still distinctly drawn. The eastern half encompasses the kitchen, the grocery shelves stacked with Greek delicacies and pantry items, a glass case full of Greek desserts, the cash register, and a small counter set below a menu board. The western half is the dining room of faux stucco walls, modestly decorated with bottles of Greek wine, a mural, and artificial grape vines.
As immigrant groups enter the workforce (allowing for the crudeness of generalizations) they tend to cluster around certain enterprises. Koreans become grocers and dry cleaners. South Asians and east Africans drive cabs. Vietnamese cut hair and do nails. Greeks opened diners, probably serving more American food over the years than Greek food.
Georgia’s, which has a small but loyal clientele from the surrounding neighborhood, does serve an American-style breakfast but is almost thoroughly Greek. Its recipes belong to matriarch Georgia Kazakos, who still supervises the kitchen; Laki, who was also born in Greece, does most of the cooking with help from a Peruvian cook.
Food is served on beige and brown plates and bowls that you would find in a short-order diner. Customers pay at the register rather than at the table. At its soul, Georgia’s is a diner, but one that happens to serve Greek home cooking. The food is modest, quirky, satisfying, and unspectacular.
The list of appetizers is two columns long, full of lemony dips and nibbles. Many can be ordered as platters. The mezethes plate ($14.45) is nearly a meal for two with stuffed grape leaves, spinach and feta-cheese pastries, patties of ground lamb, and your choice of two dips. Among the most popular are the skorthalia, a pureed potato dip that's tangy, garlicky, and speckled with dill; an eggplant dip called melitzanosalata; and a potato-caviar dip called taramosalata. The dinner entrees (octopus, squid, roast lamb) all cost about $15 and are served with perfectly prepared potatoes roasted with lemon and garlic, the Greek way.
Georgia’s serves plenty of lamb, souvlaki, gyro sandwiches, and standard Greek-American fare, but it also has a few surprises like hard-to-find sautéed dandelion greens ($8), a working-class tradition that grew out of war-time deprivation and the need to forage for food.
The flavors at Georgia’s are relatively simple but highly satisfying: lemon, garlic, mint, oregano, nutmeg. Their recipes reflect the tastes of the northern part of the country and, so, are perhaps more Balkan than Mediterranean (coincidentally, Georgia’s employs a young woman from Bosnia to work the register).
Greek food has never been quite as popular in America as that other Mediterranean cuisine, Italian, or as ingrained in American culture — even though Greek immigrants have been doing plenty of cooking. While Italian food conveys romance and sensuality, Greek food has not managed to capture the same sex appeal, perhaps because of its early associations with diners.
Georgia’s is meat-and-potatoes with a twist, not exactly exotic but uniquely sincere, taken from the kitchen of a Greek-American grandmother and her auto-mechanic son, the kind of unassuming place that Seattle apparently still has room for in 2010.
If you go: Georgia’s Greek Restaurant, 323 N.W. 85th St., Seattle, 206-783-1228, www.georgiasgreekrestaurant.com. Open Sundays-Thursdays, 8 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 8 a.m.-10 p.m.