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Road Eats: Jim's Greek Tavern

Jim’s Greek Tavern

32 Johnston Street

Collingwood VIC 3066, Australia

+61 3 9419 3827

Better than: Ordering from an actual menu.

As a rule of thumb, you take dining tips from athletes at your peril. The sporting class tends toward the extremes of the culinary spectrum. Ask an NBA player, for instance, where to grab a bite and he'll respond: "There's a Burger King down the way, but if you want something nicer, there's a Ruth's Chris downtown." Unless you're interested in eating the poison that is fast food or paying $11 for a side of mediocre creamed spinach, you're on your own.

At the Australian Open, however, dozens of tennis players got it right when they converged on Jim's Greek Tavern, a Melbourne mainstay for 39 years. In one of those Chamber of Commerce factoids that may or may not be true, Melbourne claims to have the largest Greek population of any city outside Athens. While you get the feeling there are dozens of other places in town that prepare Greek food just as skillfully and authentically, Jim's is surely unmatched in atmosphere.

Walk into the place and you feel transported to the Mediterranean. The accented proprietors greet you as though you've all been living in the same fishing village for generations. Greek music that sounds a lot like the theme from Curb Your Enthusiasm pipes from the speakers. The large main dining room is a courtyard with a chipped tile floor and walls painted Aegean blue. The vibe -- and we mean this in the best possible way -- could scarcely be more casual if it tried, what with checkerboard paper tablecloths, barefooted clientele, and a capacity crowd's noise level that approaches the decibel count of Maria Sharapova's grunts.

joes-greek

Two glaring deficiencies cement Jim's charm. The first is the absence of a roof over the main dining room -- you can do worse than eating al fresco in Melbourne, particularly in late summer. The other is the lack of menus. Instead of seeing your options, making selections and then dutifully conveying them, ordering at Jim's entails a protracted dialogue with the staff.

"I bring you dips," our server, Lazarus, proclaimed. "Very nice dips."

"Great."

"And octopus. Is very good."

"Great."

"And maybe a steak for main course."

"Nah. It's too hot for steak."

'This steak very good. Is summer steak."

"No steak."

"No steak. Maybe fish. We have very fresh fish. John Dory. You know it? I bring it?"

And so it went.

Overall, the fare at Jim's is uncomplicated, hearty and without pretense -- which, come to think of it, is a pretty fitting metaphor for Australia as a whole. Olive oil courses through the place like beer in a frat house. Otherwise, charcoal, salt, pepper and lemon are about the only other accoutrements. The oven does most of the heavy lifting.

The dirty little secret about Greek food is that you often do well skipping the entrees entirely and loading up on appetizers -- which, just to confuse Americans, are called "entrees" in Australia. With Lazarus' enthusiastic approval, my intrepid dining companion, Peter Bodo, and I loaded up dips and grilled octopus and keftedakia (meatballs) and never got to a next course. Since we're both health nuts, we ordered saganaki, which is basically kasseri cheese fried in olive oil and wine, a dish Homer would love -- Simpson, that is. Saganaki is one of the stranger victuals I've eaten, inasmuch as it's absolutely terrific when eaten hot; then as soon as the cheese cools and the fats congeal, it's simply not suitable for human consumption.

Jimmy's serves a house wine, but like many Melbourne restaurants, it has a B.Y.O. policy. Especially in such a casual atmosphere, Greek food goes well with beer. A few cans of Victoria Bitter alongside the array of appetizers made for an awfully strong doubles team.

Bodo and I passed on dessert, though the baklava in the main display case and the sludgy Greek coffee tempted us. Before we left, our new best mate Lazarus showed us various framed photos of celebrities who'd eaten at Jim's: John Denver, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, Australian cricket stars, and tennis player Mark Philippoussis, who counts himself among Melbourne's sizeable Greek citizenry.

When you go: Call ahead and make a reservation.

This is the first in an ongoing Extra Mustard series chronicling the world’s most essential sports-related restaurants. Send your nominations for future installments to extramustardtips@gmail.com.

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