¦ Where: 249 River St., Coolidge Park.
¦ Phone: 423-305-0038.
¦ Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.
¦ Price range: $4 appetizer to $12 entrees.
Next time you stroll along River Street and wonder what that slightly out-of-place, white-washed brick building is, I have your answer.
It's a wonderfully approachable Greek restaurant called Opa.
The word "opa" has taken many meanings over the Greek language's long history. People say it after breaking plates, toasting glasses, praising performers or just letting everyone around know how excited they are.
In this case, I think it's an exclamation of joyful surprise that Chattanoogans can enjoy authentic Greek favorites right in Coolidge Park.
Opa has all the Greek staples - and they fit any appetite and most budgets.
The produce all comes from local farms, and the proteins are grilled right in the restaurant's backyard. The aroma reaches out to North Shore and Coolidge Park like a siren's call, inspiring hunger in passers-by - or at least my girlfriend and I. If you want to avoid it, I suggest stuffing your nose with beeswax.
For starters, no matter what you order, you are going to get a complementary plate of grilled pita and tzatziki - a delicious dip made from Greek yogurt, tangy fresh herbs and olive oil.
If tzatziki is your thing, get a full order for $5. Or, if you'd like to continue on your food odyssey, you can ask for a plate of olives and feta ($7) or an order of outrageously tasty rice-stuffed grape leaves, called dolmades ($5).
However, if you are like me and think of the appetizer course as trial for the food Olympics, you can go for an order of spanakopita ($9) - a flaky, feta-filled spinach and leek pie.
Still can't make up your mind? Just order the OPA plate ($12) and try a little bit of everything.
Once your Mediterranean food pump is primed, you can choose between three $11-daily specials, slow roasted pork, lamb that's spent 12 hours over the fire or a heap of moussaka, a beef-filled eggplant and potato casserole that could put Hercules into a post-lunch nap.
For those seeking a more hand-held lunch, OPA offers six souvlaki - that's Greek for magnificently grilled skewered meat served on pita bread. The options: chicken, Greek-style pork, gyro, sausage, veggie or a pork-chicken combo.
Hestia, ancient Greek goddess of feasting, would have been proud. Unfortunately Dionysus, god of wine, had to hold off this time. It was the middle of the day - and OPA doesn't have an alcohol license.
Instead, we ordered the OPA tea - an unsweetened tea served with pomegranate. You should too.
We kicked it off with an order of spanakopita. The crust was perfectly flaky, and the savory feta, leek and spinach filling could not be bested.
So often, spanakopita and other baked pies can be great on the outside, but lukewarm in the center. That was not the case here. The whole pie - which was served with a side of red pepper hummus - was piping hot throughout. Delicious.
For the main course, I opted for the familiar and ordered a gyro souvlaki.
The ground lamb was crisp, yet juicy and expertly spiced. To balance the heavy flavor of the lamb, the pita was topped with crisp red onions, two slices of ripe tomato and fresh parsley. It was served with some more tzatziki, black olives and oven roasted potatoes.
My darling girlfriend went with the chicken souvlaki. Naturally, I stole a bite.
I am a harsh judge of chicken. Many people (who wear scaredy pants) cook chicken until it has the texture and consistency of dry Play-Doh. But not OPA! Like the lamb, the chicken had a respectable char from the grill but retained all of its mouth-watering juices.
To make this a lunchtime triathlon, we ordered dessert. And out came a chocolate covered, homemade slice of baklava ($4), a sticky, sweet dish made with ground walnuts, almonds, honey and cinnamon, topped with a flaky phyllo dough. I'm not the biggest fan of sweets, but my girlfriend says it was darn good baklava.
It was a pretty straight forward deal: I walked in, found the counter and talked to the very good-natured Greek owner about what we wanted for lunch. When we had questions, he had polite answers. When we were waffling about what dessert to order he said, "I will fix you up, it's OK." We trusted him. That was a good move.
The food came out in a sensible, timely manner. And we were in and out within our alotted 1-hour break.
From the white-wash brick and blue trim outside and in, OPA feels authentic and old world. Every piece of art inside reminds you that this food came from somewhere far away with rich traditions.
But that comes with a few - very minor - down sides.
The main dining area is small, it's almost all brick and it's not very insulated.
If diners don't know how to use inside voices - you know who you are - it can get loud. And if it's cold outside, it's going to be chilly in OPA.
So bring a jacket and the food will do the rest. When the weather warms up, sit outside at OPA's bar-style seating and check out Coolidge Park.
And for those wary of a rustic looking eatery, don't worry. OPA's got a 96 health score.
If you want the best Greek food in the world, go to Greece. But if you want the best Greek food in a few hundred miles, go to OPA.
The staff is nice and enthusiastic, the food is great and the experience is the real deal.
In a word, Opa!
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6481.