It seems that the term “fast-food restaurant” has fallen out of favor of late, and now you hear “quick-service restaurant,” “fast-casual restaurant,” and so on, perhaps because fast food brings up thoughts of such mega-chains as McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell. The concept itself has changed over recent times as well, with such chains as Panera and Chipotle focusing a bit more on freshly-made items, and some local chains and independent spots have gone even further, serving good food quick while offering a total dining experience that is anything but generic.
It is in this category that you’ll find a place called Saloniki, a trio of Greek eateries that focus on locally sourced ingredients while offering up dishes nearly as quickly as the big fast-food chains, and in the case of the location in Cambridge’s MIT/Central Square area, this last point is huge because there are so many office workers and college students in the immediate area.
James Beard Award-winning chef Jody Adams opened the first Saloniki in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood in early 2016 with partners Eric Papachristos and Jonathan Mendez, with the Cambridge location arriving later that year; a second Cambridge location opened at Harvard University’s Smith Campus Center last fall, joining several other dining spots in that space. The MIT/Central Square outlet resides in an area of big factory and warehouse buildings, and the atmosphere of the place certainly fits in nicely, with an industrial vibe complete with high ceilings, hanging lights, exposed beams and pipes, a cement floor, and huge windows along a curved wall that look out over Mass Ave and Albany Street.
Being that it’s a quick-service restaurant, Saloniki is counter-service-only: Customers get in line to order their food, move to the left toward the cashier area much like in a cafeteria, and order drinks at the spot where they pay for their meals. Seating includes a counter along the curved wall where people can dine while looking out the windows, and communal tables are set up in the middle of the space, with some of the tables to the right being very close to the line of people waiting to order, depending on how busy it is. As you might expect, the noise level can be rather loud due to the open floor plan and the rock-hard floor.
Jody Adams and her team have what’s basically a farm-to-table concept at Saloniki, with locally sourced ingredients used whenever possible, while they try to go with the best vendors possible in general, be it local or outside of the region. This certainly shows in the food offerings, as everything here tastes fresh and has that scratch-made home-cooking feel to it.
The restaurant tends to focus in part on lighter fare and you won’t find much in the way of hearty old-school Greek/Greek-American fare here such as moussaka, pastitsio, and the like, but you will find some outstanding soups, salads, sandwiches, and grill items. Highlights (depending on what’s offered at the time) include a “yiayia’s soup” with tomatoes, white beans, and a bit of a kick coming from a “secret” sauce added; an old-world village salad with olives, cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, Greek oregano, and feta along with a house-made vinaigrette; a grilled halloumi appetizer that seems like it comes right from the old country, with olive oil and Greek oregano added; savory zucchini-feta fritters that are slightly browned from the griddle and come with a garlicky yogurt sauce; a classic souvlaki dish with chicken, lamb, or veggie skewers, house-made pita, tomato slices, spiced Greek fries, and a tangy tzatziki; tender lamb meatballs that are grilled and come with Greek fries and tzatziki; a pork shoulder pita sandwich (basically a gyro) with spicy whipped feta and more spices coming from the restaurant’s secret sauce; and for dessert, an utterly sinful plate of Greek donuts that can be ordered with honey and cinnamon, sour cherry, or (wait for it) Nutella and baklava crumbles.
Unlike many quick-service spots, Saloniki does offer beer, wine, and cocktails, and the beer list is surprisingly impressive with such options as Fiddlehead and SingleCut being among the regional brews and Mythos and Crazy Donkey being among the Greek beers. Prices overall are pretty cheap considering the quality of the food, with appetizers mostly on either side of $5 and meals on either side of $10.
With just three locations, Saloniki isn’t really a true chain, but based on the overall concept and setup of the one by MIT and Central Square, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see more locations added at some point. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen, but for now, Saloniki is a mighty impressive local group of eateries, and its team (which again includes a James Beard Award winner) certainly seems to be onto something pretty special here.
SALONIKI. 181 MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. SALONIKIGREEK.COM