For years, I’d been hearing the oddest praises of a Greek restaurant out in Fairfax’s Pan Am shopping center. The tipsters typically began, “The food’s not incredible…” or “The atmosphere’s not much…” Then they would insist that I rush to this place they’d just seconds ago cut down.
I’d never encountered such rousing support for an eatery that sounded so mediocre. But now that I’ve visited Pan Am Family Restaurant, it all begins to make sense.
The place undeniably has its loyalists. Go twice and you’re likely to see the same folks in the same seat-yourself booths, chowing down on food that’s marked by its mild flavors and disconcertingly soft textures, as if it had been prepared in the humid jungle interior. The restaurant, open from dawn ’til dusk, is thronged both fore—a large smoking room, sliced by rays of sunlight from the curtained windows—and aft—a smaller, nonsmoking partition equipped with hanging vines and slowly rotating fans, much like the Home Depot patio-furniture aisle.
Because salad comes free with entrees after 4 p.m., there’s sometimes Beltway-like gridlock surrounding the salad bar. As it turns out, it’s also the appetizer bar, stocked with vinegary dolmas and taramosalata, the coral-colored potato-and-caviar whip that defines “acquired taste.” The salad bar’s diversity is reflected in the menu, which is divided into sections such as omelets, subs, pizza (New York–style), and “dinners”—calves’ liver with fried onions, a cheesy, bubbling lasagna, and honey-dipped fried chicken. It’s rare to pay more than $11.95 for one of these meals, or $10.95 for a carafe of house white to wash them down with.
One day, I watched as a diner of the Rodney Dangerfield physique hunted down his ideal meal with the help of a waitress. “I like red sauce,” he said. “What’s got red sauce?” “Well, there’s the moussaka,” she gamely replied. “And the lasagna…That’s meat sauce.” The sauce-lover, it turns out, has a sympathetic palate in the kitchen. Manoli Reisis, the mustachioed head cook and husband in the “Family” dynasty—there’s also his wife, Maria Reisis, and brother-in-law, Sam Kranis—makes all the sauces from scratch, and for good reason. “All the dishes with a lot of sauce go [over] good,” Manoli explains.
Originally from the Greek island of Karpathos, Manoli spent the ’80s as a chef at Merrifield’s old La Guinguette. When he decided to go solo, he had the chance to buy a gourmet Italian eatery but turned it down because “it’s hard to find qualified people” for such an establishment. Instead, in 1988, he opened a restaurant in the mold of a Greek diner, elevated with touches of French cuisine. “I wanted a family-type thing,” he says, “but a little more upscale.” That means, for one thing, that the hollandaise on Friday’s poached salmon wasn’t born as a powder.
“Family-type” dining is a euphemism often employed by restaurants whose single portions could feed an entire family. It’s no different here: The daily specials are of a hugeness that stultifies not just the body but the very soul. The chicken piccata is three browned slabs of breast meat on a hill of lemon-buttery linguine and what must be half a jar of capers. Large sea scallops, so often rationed, appear here 16 in number, basking on a vast shoal of rice. For diversion, I started to dine with a postal scale, weighing meals surreptitiously under the table. (Yes, I tared the plate—it’s oversized, too.) The Hungarian stuffed cabbage—two torpedoes of ground beef and rice with a side of carrots and peas—remains the record-holder, at nearly 2 pounds. It’s truly a hearty meal (and potentially a last one, if consumed in one sitting). Each dish comes to the tables assembled as precisely as a Volvo on the factory line, and each test-drives the way a Volvo does, offering a slow, cautious ride around the taste-bud track, without a hint of excitement.
On several of my visits, Maria Reisis made tours of the room, greeting, laughing, hugging. The diners laughed and hugged back. There was a palpable happiness among feeder and feedees, and I felt left out—that is, until the day I ordered the egg-lemon soup, a chickeny broth loaded with bird’s-tongue pasta and wisps of cooked egg. It’s a comforting substance that seems to naturally belong in the body. And the gyro is a standout among sandwiches everywhere. No foil-constrained “wrap,” this, but a sprawling open-faced affair of thick pita, spiced lamb and beef, and, of course, a sauce: tzatziki. It’s judiciously served with a large steak knife. “All of my body is just processing food right now,” said my lunch companion, before surrendering her fork. She then lapsed into nonsensical humming.
Plopped into the middle of the restaurant, to everyone’s distraction, is a case full of Manoli Reisis’ cakes and pies. There’s coconut cream, strawberry shortcake, and a version of Key lime that’s as heavy as uranium and righteously pucker-inducing. But the end-game given has to be the massive, supersweet baklava, which Manoli builds from a dozen layers of walnuts, phyllo dough, and butter. When you stab it with a fork, it bleeds a honey syrup flavored with clove and orange peel. It towers above other baklavas in town, which look pitiful in comparison.
But a dessert a meal does not make. Leaving Family Restaurant for the last time, moving as if I had an anchor tied around my leg, I reflected on its popularity. In a place where the food is always good, I decided, one tends not to care about its being great. And if you can feed for a week from its ark-sized moussaka, that’s not a bad thing.
Pan Am Family Restaurant, 3051 Nutley St., Fairfax, (703) 560-9322.—John Metcalfe
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Charles Steck.