Feel-Good Food
With healthy cuisine and lively atmosphere, Mediterranean restaurants have staged a crave-worthy comeback.

Call it an increased interest in wellness or a connection to the rise of diets that favor plant-based foods, but the resurgence of Mediterranean cuisine is hard to miss. Restaurants serving traditional dishes from Israel, Greece, Lebanon, Turkey, and Morocco are all part of the movement and opening around the United States (and globally) at a fast clip.

The celebrated chef Anissa Helou, who grew up in Lebanon and has written nine cookbooks on Mediterranean cuisine including Mediterranean Street Food, attributes the surge to people paying more attention to what they consume. “They want to eat healthier, and on the whole, the cuisine in these countries is naturally healthy. It emphasizes seasonal ingredients and vibrant flavors with lots of herbs such as parsley and mint,” she says. Helou adds that such a meal is made even more enjoyable because dishes are usually served family-style and meant to be shared with everyone at the table.

Joe Barza, a renowned Lebanese chef, agrees but also thinks that the trend has to do with the growing inclination toward vegetable-focused diets. “Being a vegetarian, even if it’s on occasion, is definitely something that more and more of us are doing, and Mediterranean food has a huge variety of satisfying vegetarian dishes,” he says. “There’s dips, stuffed vegetables, grilled cheeses, salads, and more.”

From an Israeli restaurant group building a global empire to a hot ticket eatery in Washington, D.C. that’s been around for two decades but continues to be trendsetting, the following four names serving Mediterranean cuisine are getting big buzz and are deserving of it too.

The Better Guys Restaurant Group, Global

With 35 Israeli restaurants and counting, Israeli chef Eyal Shani’s group, based in Tel Aviv, began in 2008 when he teamed up with the prolific film director and actor Shahar Segal. When they opened the fine dining HaSalon in Tel Aviv, Segal deejayed and Shani cooked. Diners packed in from the outset and savored new flavors while dancing on tables whenever they weren’t eating. Since that first successful venture, outposts of HaSalon opened in New York and Miami. The duo also launched Miznon, a more casual version of HaSalon with several locations, including Paris, Vienna, and Melbourne.

Shani believes in the power of ingredients. “My job is to convert these raw materials—mostly vegetables—into a dish where they become the star,” he says. “I’m writing a culinary sentence, and my subjects are mainly olive oil, sea salt, and the ingredient. I don’t really use spices.”

His famous whole roasted cauliflower is the perfect example: Shani boils the whole head for a few minutes in hot water, roasts it in the oven until it turns golden brown, and finishes it with a dose of coarse sea salt from the Atlantic Ocean, which he says adds a sweetness to any dish. His sweet potato is also legendary and baked until it’s caramelized and juicy. As Shani calls it, “sugar.” Then there’s the whole wild grouper that’s baked with tomatoes, white onions, sage, and green chili peppers and finished on a stove with Burgundy wine and butter. “My dishes are meant to have an energy and vibe,” says Shani. “I merely write their story.”

Avra Estiatorio Rockefeller Center, New York

Already a hit with its two venues in New York and one in Los Angeles, the seafood-focused, chic Greek eatery Avra is opening its fourth and largest outpost in April in the landmarked 1271 Avenues of the Americas near Rockefeller Center. Spanning more than 16,500 square feet, the three-level eatery has 27-foot-tall ceilings, a whitewashed color theme that’s meant to transport diners to the islands of Greece, and an open kitchen with a market-style seafood display.

The menu focuses on fresh fish that’s flown in daily from Greece, Spain, and Portugal, but also highlights local finds such as black bass, porgies, flounder, and fluke. Enjoy it grilled or baked in salt and finished with a drizzle of fruity, full-bodied olive oil and sea salt. Or go for it raw in dishes such as the red mullet tartar, which Avra co-founder Nick Tsoulos regularly ate, along with other raw crustaceans, while he was growing up in Nafpaktos on Greece’s southern coast. “I used to go fishing with my uncle, and as soon as we came off the boat, we would slice what we caught and eat it with abandon,” he says. “It’s an experience I want to replicate here.” Salads and cheeses will be a staple on the menu too, as well as dips such as spicy feta with roasted red peppers. “If you’re health-conscious, vegan, or a seafood lover, this is the place for you,” says Tsoulos.

Zaytinya, New York coming soon

When acclaimed chef José Andrés opened Zaytinya in D.C.’s Penn Quarter in 2002, it was the first of its kind to debut in the city. Serving small plates that borrow from Turkey, Greece, and Lebanon, the restaurant is a love letter to Andrés’ background in Mediterranean cooking, inspired by his years of traveling to these countries and researching their cuisines. Concept Chef Michael Costa heads up the kitchen today and is planning for a New York location in NoMad, scheduled to open this year. He has divided the expansive menu into Spreads, Cures & Cheeses, Flat Bread, and Soups & Salads. Mezze has three sections: Vegetables, Seafood, and Meat & Poultry.

Costa explains that Zaytinya is a play on the Turkish word for olive oil. “It’s a place where olive oil is our lifeblood, and other ingredients such as eggplant, parsley, mint, tomatoes, and lemon play lead roles,” he says. A prime example is the imam bayildi, a slow-simmered stew of tomatoes, onions, and eggplant that’s seasoned with sumac, black pepper, and Urfa pepper (a Turkish chili that infuses dishes with a gentle heat). Kebabs are among the most ordered items with the shish taouk, a grilled chicken thigh skewer marinated in yogurt, olive oil, cumin, and Aleppo pepper, taking the lead. The tender meat is topped with sumac-tossed onions, grilled tomatoes, and a fluffy garlic sauce. Costa describes coming to Zaytinya as “convivial.” “It’s about sharing and connecting with family and friends over bright, flavorful food,” he says.

SABA, New Orleans

Named after the Hebrew word for grandfather, SABA is the latest hit from five-time James Beard Award–nominated Israeli chef Alon Shaya. Located on Magazine Street in the heart of New Orleans, the restaurant is rooted in Israeli cuisine but full of influences from Yemen, Morocco, Turkey, and Bulgaria. “These are the recipes I grew up eating,” says Shaya, who was born in Bat Yam, Israel, just south of Tel Aviv. “I’ve made them my own by using ingredients from Louisiana.”

The restaurant feels inviting with its cozy wood finishes, like being in the dining room of a close friend’s home. The menu is anchored by a wood-burning oven that’s right in the middle of the space and behind the basket of fluffy, hot pita that’s baked à la minute for each table as the precursor to every meal. This addictive bread is also the utensil for the various hummus dishes (spicy lamb ragu with crispy garbanzo beans is among the bunch) and salads and spreads, such as the verdant parsley tabbouleh with pecans. Entrées are a trip through the Middle East: short rib tagine with black garlic and couscous is distinctly Moroccan, while the coal roasted fish is a throwback to markets in Israel where stalls with smoking hot coals impart what Shaya describes as “an amazing flavor to the freshest catch.” SABA remains one of the toughest reservations to score in town.