Hospitality is an endangered species. In restaurants across Northeast Ohio and beyond, owner sightings are going the way of the spotted owl. The tasks of receiving and tending to guests, therefore, falls into the hands of general managers, assistant managers and/or servers, none of whom can ever be as invested in a customer's welfare as the proprietor.
George Gountis practically lives at his business. Scratch that. George Gountis literally lives at his business, occupying the upper floors of the building that houses Mars Bar, his Lakewood watering hole. If you have stumbled into this dimly lit cave within the past 15 years, you likely have been greeted by and ministered to by the owner. If you have visited more than once, chances are good that Gountis has thanked you for your patronage in the form of a generous shot of ouzo.
For folks in the know, Mars Bar has been an under-the-radar harbor on Madison for cheap drinks, friendly service and a low-key vibe. The truly clued-in have been coming here not just for booze but also grub, because despite its dive-bar patina, Mars Bar also happens to sell some of the best gyros in town. Those spinning spits of meat attract barflies like bears to honey, and to-go orders of the house-made tzatziki practically outpace beer sales in volume.
Two years ago, Gountis took possession of the adjacent property, knocked down a wall, and began expanding his modest little bar to fill the space. The new café debuted last spring and, despite a less than seamless transition between the two spots that involves a few steps down, the additional space is a blessing. What's more, the renovation did not mar or modify the come-as-you-are atmosphere of the original barroom; it simply added on.
A newer, larger kitchen translates to a newer, larger menu flush with Greek-inspired appetizers, salads, sandwiches, burgers and, of course, gyros. The Original ($8) benefits from warm, thick and fresh pita, atop which is piled flavorful shaved lamb-and-beef gyro meat, crisp red onion, thick-sliced tomato and creamy tzatziki sauce made by the owner's mother. Other iterations are made with pork, chicken and seitan. For folks who like to build, stack and snack, a "mezze" version ($9.50) pairs a larger portion of meat and the accoutrements with pita wedges.
Another delicious entrée is built around beef ($4.75), pork ($3.50) and vegetable ($2.75) kebabs. Unlike so many places these days, Mars welcomes mixing and matching various skewers to construct the perfect meal. Order it sandwich-style (add $2) and the kebabs come with pita, onions, tomatoes and tzatziki. Half-pound beef burgers ($12) come from TJ's Butcher Block down the road and they are cooked to perfection. Versions are topped with brie and truffle aioli, mushroom and swiss, and cheddar, buffalo wing sauce and an onion ring. Salty, crispy fries are included in the price.
Fans of spanakopita, that flaky Greek pastry layered with spinach, feta and onion, can enjoy a sandwich version ($8) that conjures the flavors of that classic dish. Another two-fisted sandwich pairs the sweetness of Hawaiian bread with ham, swiss, tomato and honey mustard and dubs it the Kingswiss ($11). Salads are no mere afterthought, with smartly constructed creations like the OG ($5), a traditional Greek salad with the punch of pepperoncini, olives and feta. Any of the half-dozen salads can be made into a meal with the addition of kebabs or gyro meat.
Mars wouldn't be a Mars Bar without wings, and those obligatory snacks are still an option. But now they are eclipsed by more ambitious appetizers like yogurt-drizzled lamb meatballs ($9) served in a piping-hot skillet along with olive-spiked marinara. The Try-Dip platter ($9) introduced us to one of the best things we've ever dunked a piece of pita into. Tyrokafteri, aka spicy feta spread, is a salty, spicy, creamy dream that vanished long before the tubs of hummus and tzatziki, both of which are great. Mars might be "just" a bar, but Gountis springs for quality ingredients and it shows.
With the unveiling of the new addition, Mars Bar has managed to satisfy two seemingly disparate factions: the dive-bar groupies and the dinner crowds. Both sets benefit not only from restaurant-style food dished up in distinctly different environments, but also a bar-style policy of serving right up until close – 2:30 a.m. every day of the year. With genuine late-night food options evaporating right along with owner sightings, Mars is like a two-headed unicorn.