The Red Line Cafe brings the aromas and flavors of Greece to diners on the North Shore. The Salem cafe’s friendly owners are eager to please, extending a warm welcome and attentive service.
Named for its location along the city’s popular Heritage Trail, marked by a painted red line, the cafe is accessible from Essex Street’s brick-and-cobblestone pedestrian walkway and from the Museum Place Mall.
The menu, handwritten on a large chalkboard above a counter, boasts more than a dozen Greek-style espresso coffee drinks, other coffee and tea varieties, fresh fruit smoothies, an array of salads, crepes, and more than a dozen sandwiches and wraps.
All of the recipes are created by chef Athanasios Lengas, co-owner of the cafe with his wife, Maria Veres, who was born and raised in Salem. Veres and Lengas met in Athens, where he owned and ran a cafe that is the inspiration for their joint venture.
The spacious storefront, once home to one of Salem’s beloved ice cream shops, offers a relaxed atmosphere, where patrons order at a counter displaying muffins (baked daily by Lengas), sticky buns, and bagels (delivered daily from Iggy’s Bread of the World in Watertown). Gluten-free bread is available, and Lengas will soon offer homemade gluten-free muffins.
The cafe, which offers free Wi-Fi, seats 53, with a choice of tables or wood counters, including one in front of the cafe’s large plate-glass windows, perfect for people-gazing. Weather permitting, there are also several outdoor tables.
On a hot summer afternoon, a friend and I stopped in for a cold drink and small bite to eat following a visit to the Peabody Essex Museum, just a minute’s stroll from the cafe. A tall glass of freshly brewed ice tea hit the mark.
Lengas prepares his version of spanikopita, Greek spinach pie ($5), by folding paper-thin phyllo dough around a filling of fresh spinach, onion, egg, and feta cheese. Formed into a triangle and served hot, it was a perfect balance between the flaky golden baked phyllo and an exceptionally light filling that is not greasy.
A complimentary sample of homemade baklava, the sweet Greek pastry of phyllo dough layered with a mixture of nuts, honey, sugar, and a little lemon zest, was outstanding, and not overly sweet or syrupy.
On a return visit on a recent Sunday morning, the cafe began to fill up by 11 .
The owners recommended the freddo cappuccino, ($4.10), an iced espresso drink that is the go-to summer drink in Athens, they said. The Red Line version, becoming their signature drink, is a rich dark brown espresso, topped by several inches of frothy steamed milk. Served in a tapered glass, the elegant drink, cooled with a light touch of ice, was richly flavored, smooth and delicious.
The cafe uses Lavazza coffee, an Italian coffee company, for its regularly brewed and espresso coffees. The Greek coffee and a Greek frappe, served hot or iced, is made from Nescafé, imported from Greece.
Diners gathered at the counter to watch Lengas prepare crepes, pouring his homemade batter onto one of two hot crepe griddles.
The Bistro crepe ($10.25), filled with roasted turkey, arugula, brie, and homemade fig marmalade, is a tasty contrast of flavors and textures with small forkfuls of filling in every bite of the slightly fluffy pancake.
The Farm House ($8.25) is the most popular savory crepe, they said, with baby spinach, goat cheese, garlic, mushrooms, heirloom tomatoes, and the unusual addition of pickles. The most popular sweet variety is Bella Nutella ($7.50), filled with the hazelnut-cocoa spread, whipped cream, and fresh strawberries and topped with a drizzle of the spread.
A “Rocket” salad ($8.50) bursts with flavors of crisp arugula, creamy pieces of ricotta salata, thin slices of figs, almonds, and slices of roast chicken, instead of prosciutto, as listed on the menu. The sherry-vanilla vinaigrette is light and not overly sweet.
Diners are encouraged to customize any order.
A pumpkin muffin, ordered to go, won the endorsement of my husband, who said it was light, not greasy, and packed with the seasonal flavors of pumpkin, nuts, and cinnamon.
Veres, who to used to imagine owning a cafe with her sister, said she is thrilled that she and her husband were able to open a cafe on Essex Street, where she used to spend time as a teen.
“I grew up here and want to give back to this community,” she said.
One measure of their customer appreciation is that on days when Lengas bakes baklava, usually once a week, they continue to offer patrons samples of the delicious dessert.Penny Schwartz can be reached at email@example.com.