Zoe Vallas may be the most famous 3-year-old in Cambridge.
Consider: How many soon-to-be preschoolers have a restaurant named after them? When Zoe was an infant, her dad, Theophilos (Theo for short), christened his new business the same as his new baby girl. There's apparently no sibling rivalry in this household; Zoe's three brothers - Nikolas, 11; Stavros, 9; and Christopher, 5 - suggested she get the honor.
It's fitting, then, that Zoe's is "super kid-friendly," in Theo's words. But what else would you expect from a retro 1950s diner with a jukebox, giant gumball machine, colorful tiled floor, bright-red booths, raspberry-lime rickeys, and pumpkin pie frappes? Highchairs and booster seats are in plentiful supply. On busy weekend mornings, serenity is not.
"Kids get a little loud sometimes," Theo says good-naturedly, "but it doesn't matter."
Like any respectable diner, Zoe's serves breakfast - French toast, waffles, pancakes, blintzes, corned beef hash, eggs galore - all day long. Lunch and dinner offer something for every appetite: soups, salads, burgers, hot and cold sandwiches, entrees from shrimp scampi to meatloaf to eggplant parmesan.
There's also a smattering of Greek foods, including baked lamb, moussaka, gyros, and souvlaki. Longtime Bostonians may remember the Greek restaurants Omonia, Aegean Fair, and Mykonos Fair; they were owned by Theo's family, and Theo himself ran Quincy Market's Mykonos Fair, now closed. In 2004, he opened Zoe's in a basement-level spot between Harvard and Central squares, replacing another diner, Johnny's Luncheonette.
As often happens when a restaurant tries to be a jack of all trades, quality see-saws at Zoe's, but it's still a nice addition to the neighborhood. It's affordable; it's welcoming to families; it's roomy (82 seats and extra-wide booths); it opens early and closes relatively late; and its all-purpose menu has wide appeal. Even in restaurant-rich Cambridge, that middle ground can be tough to find.
I'd order several dishes again in a heartbeat. Sweet potato pancakes ($6.50) slathered with whipped cinnamon butter: awesome. Grilled shrimp kebab ($9.95): loved it, and hope to replicate the subtle honey-dijon marinade at home. Spinachy spanikopita ($3.75): perfectly flaky and invigoratingly salty, thanks to a liberal dose of feta. Sweet potato fries ($3.50): irresistible even cold.
Cherry tomatoes, raisins, walnuts, sliced apples, and goat cheese elevated a baby spinach salad ($8.25). A salmon filet ($9.95) bordered on dry, but its sweet teriyaki glaze was very good. A chicken souvlaki wrap ($7.25) came with vibrantly garlicky tzatziki, a yogurt-cucumber sauce.
There were a few clunkers. Lamb kebab ($10.95) had huge potential - a garlic-oregano marinade brought out the meat's distinctive flavor - but was badly overcooked. We requested medium-rare; it arrived nearly grey. A lemon-chicken-rice soup called avgolemono ($4.25) tasted flat and skimped on chicken. Moussaka ($9.75), an eggplant-ground beef casserole topped with bechamel sauce, needed more pep, if only a dash of salt and spritz of nutmeg.
Roasted eggplant dip ($4.50), spiked with red wine vinegar that added intriguing sweetness, was robustly flavorful. But that same vinegar in the lentil soup ($4.25) teetered on the brink of sour. Baklava ($1.75) also tasted slightly off. Instead of thick, rich, honey-butter sauce, it sat in a thin, lemony, overly tart sugar water.
Good omelets, though. They're fat and fluffy, and I really liked my "Sante Fe" ($7.95) stuffed with onions, spinach, Monterey Jack, and apple-maple chicken sausage. Crunchy French toast ($6.50), dipped in sliced almonds, bran flakes, corn flakes, and brown sugar before it's grilled, is a fun variation on tradition, but my friend claimed it hurt the roof of her mouth!
We were impressed, by the way, that real maple syrup accompanied the French toast and all other griddle items, not the saccharine fake stuff in plastic bottles. There's no substitute for the real thing, so kudos to Zoe's for not cutting corners.