We don’t normally associate Mediterranean cuisine with the kind of comfort food that warms the body and soul during a cold winter, but a recent visit to Atlantis Taverna has changed that perception somewhat.
In Greece, a taverna is a small, family-owned restaurant that serves classic Greek dishes such as spanakopita, moussaka and pastitsio in a relaxed, friendly environment. It’s more like visiting the home of a relative than it is fine dining.
And so it is with Atlantis Taverna, which has been operating in downtown Sun Prairie for decades and under its current ownership for 12 years. It’s not quite as homey as visiting your distant aunt or uncle, but it is family owned and operated.
The restaurant is casual and welcoming, with a bright interior designed to conjure images of village life in Greece and the Mediterranean Sea. A wooden shutter divides the main dining room into two areas. On one side, a brightly-colored mural depicts life in a Grecian village, while the other side is painted ocean blue.
Beneath whirling ceiling fans, diners sit at handsome wooden booths or tables, and the larger area includes a small bar where guests can wait for an open table.
The restaurant takes reservations, and it’s a good idea to make them on Friday and Saturday nights.
The food here is very good and reminiscent of what I recall from visits to Greece, with a menu composed of recipes revolving around seafood and casserole-like dishes. There’s also street food such as gyros, souvlaki, hummus, Kalamata olives, spinach pie and falafel with pita.
Greek cuisine includes wonderful appetizers, or mezethes. The ones offered at Atlantis don’t disappoint, but they are not what I’d call a strength of the kitchen. Its best dishes are found under the menu’s “dinner favorites” category.
For appetizers, a plate of dolmades ($3.95) comes with five small grape leaves wrapped around rice and herbs with a hint of lemon. They’re served cold, are perfectly delicious, and come with a yogurt-cucumber sauce known as tzatziki.
A plate of fried calamari ($7.95) also comes with tzatziki sauce, along with triangles of soft, warm pita. It’s a standard preparation and presentation of the fried squid.
We loved the village Greek salad ($7.99), a combination of cubed cucumber, tomato, bell pepper and red onion, all swimming in a light dressing of olive oil, red wine vinegar, lemon juice, oregano, parsley and garlic. It’s definitely not a comfort food, but it is one of the healthiest things you could eat.
Spinach pie (also known as spanakopita) is spinach, cheese, onions and herbs tucked into filo dough and baked. This can be ordered as an appetizer ($5.50) or a main course ($9.50). As a main course, the plate includes rice pilaf, green beans cooked in tomato and cubes of feta cheese. Atlantis’ version of spanakopita is tasty, but it’s not as flavorful and filling as some I’ve had. Instead, I’d say the kitchen excels at other Greek classics such as moussaka ($11.99), pastitsio ($11.50) and gyros ($6.50).
The latter comes with loads of spiced meat wrapped in pita with tomato, onion and tzatziki sauce. It’s filling and satisfying, and it tastes much like other gyros I’ve had—and I can’t imagine how it could be any better.
We love the kitchen’s pastitsio dinner, which the menu describes as “Greek-style lasagna.” It features thick layers of pasta with tomato-beef sauce, topped with rich béchamel sauce and baked. The dish comes alive with spices such as cinnamon and cloves, and it is served with pita and feta, and green beans cooked in tomato.
The moussaka dinner is very similar, except the meat sauce is replaced with generous portions of delicious eggplant, and the dish is served with rice pilaf.
The kitchen’s grilled chicken breast ($9.99) features a marinated breast topped with diced tomato, basil, red onion and crumbled feta, and it is served with rice pilaf and green beans in tomato. It’s a good amount of food for the price, but the meat was a bit tough and dry.
For dessert, there’s baklava ($2.95), a rich, sweet pastry made from layers of filo filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with honey. For an even more decadent dessert (and more calories), order it with vanilla ice cream.
It seems there are fewer Greek restaurants in the Madison area than there were 20 or 30 years ago. We’re not sure why, but if Greek cuisine is appealing, you might want to head to downtown Sun Prairie, where Atlantis Taverna remains as popular as it’s ever been under owners Beth and Telly Fatsis.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.