FOR AUTHENTICITY and ambiance, nobody does it better than the folks at Taverna Cretekou in Alexandria. Behind the leaded glass front door on King Street lies the glory that is the tourist's Greece. Rough whitewashed walls and classic arches recall the rounded rooftops of a Greek island baking under the Mediterranean sun. The walls are pristine except for a few woven tapestries the color of Demestica, "the popular light red wine from the Corinthian Gulf," according to the menu. And the plants hanging in arched windows give the impression that you've just stepped onto a terrace in Crete, perhaps.
Your waiter will be from Greece or Cyprus and he'll be wearing black pants and a white shirt with a black neckerchief tied rakishly round his neck. (The busboys wear distinguishing black shirts.) There's not much staff turnover -- you'll recognize the same waiters from year to year. They're friendly, fast on their feet, and they'll reward you with a grin if you manage to wrap your mouth around one of the menu's multisyllabisms such as the awesome spanakotiropitakia (a savory cheese and spinach pastry).
Wine flows like water in Greece. Perhaps that's why it's served in small glass tumblers, which encourage you to throw it back. The glasses fit nicely in the palm of your hand and lend themselves to resounding toasts with loud clinks. A bottle of wine disappears with remarkable speed here. And as the bottles come and go, spirits soar and so do the conversations, rising above the recorded Greek music.
By 9:30 on a weekend night the restaurant has worked itself up to something close to a fever pitch. That's when the real music starts. Tucked under the large arch that separates the Taverna's two levels, the musicians sit down against the wall to play, practically sharing a table with the nearest couple of diners. Chris is on guitar, taking a break from tending the Taverna's bar. Stelious plays bouzouki, the instrument that is to Greeks what bagpipes are to Scots.
Like most Greek songs, the music starts out slow, then builds to a whirling pace with frenetic fretwork, a buzz of sound that's halfway between Byzantine and Middle Eastern. "Never on a Sunday" is always part of the repertoire. It's hard to resist, and the customers are caught up in a hand-clapping sway led by the waiters. Then three waiters join hands, lifting them high overhead while their feet start to trace a labyrinth of steps, very slowly at first, then faster and faster until they're are almost a blur.
Everyone in the restaurant has stopped eating, drinking and talking to watch. The urge to join in is strong and lots of people do. For a minute you can feel like Zorba, lost in a swell of music and motion.
Then restaurant manager Mike Cosmides whispers to a busboy who slides into the Greek chorus line, subbing for one of the waiters who hurries off to the kitchen to pick up his tray of ready orders. The music and the dance wind down; the waiters, a little flushed, go back to business as usual.
At some tables the Demestica continues to pour. But most of the customers are winding down, too. Perhaps inspired by the music, some are ordering Coffee Zorba, spiked with Kahlua, creme de cacao and ouzo, the distinctively Greek licorice-flavored cordial that's served straight up in shot glasses in just such tavernas all over Greece.
TAVERNA CRETEKOU -- 818 King Street, Alexandria. 548-8688. Dinner entrees include moussaka, pastitsio or dolmades, all $8.50. The Taverna special offers five Greek specialties for $9.75. A bottle of Demestica is $11 ($5.50, half a bottle.)