It was inevitable that Fournos Theophilos, the new Hellenic establishment just east of Times Square on 45th Street, would be informally dubbed the Greek Eataly. Unfortunately, that label doesn’t do the concept justice. Named after folk painter Theophilos Hatzimihail, who might have died of food poisoning, Fournos is really a fast-casual cafe with a few meager shelves of nonperishable imported groceries. Unlike the real Eataly, there’s no cheese, fresh fruits and vegetables, or charcuterie, and no wine, though wine is promised in the future.
But yes, the two-story space is attractively designed with perhaps some inspiration from markets like Eataly, and despite some odd service choices, it’s possible to obtain a solid meal from the place.
Inside the front door is a breakfast nook tendering muffins and croissants, along with several types of coffee. Next, shooting deep into the narrow ground floor, are a pair of dramatic counters lit from below, so the faces of the black-costumed clerks seem a little scary. One counter is devoted to savory pastries, most flaky and filo-based; the other offers sandwiches and desserts that include pastries, pies, and ice cream. There’s also a yogurt bar with toppings.
Up a steep staircase is a serve-yourself dining room decorated with literary passages long and boring enough that you’ll stop reading in the middle. A mural of a baker flipping pies into an oven covers a rear wall, a cartoony attempt to copy a Theophilos painting. To the left of the mural, find a glassed-in area where the restaurant food is doled out from tubs and trays at your direction by a number of attendants. They are friendly and witty, as they help you negotiate your way around dozens of choices as you assemble a lunch bowl.
This, of course, is a fast-casual trick — making you figure out your own meal out of a bewildering array of combinations. At the bottom goes lentil-studded rice or orzo, the rice lookalike. Next, a pair of side dishes from an apparent choice of four are ladled on; two are nearly indistinguishable salads, one a cold dish of cooked mustard greens, another a mustardy potato salad that seems French. Condiments and sauces are available, to be spooned on top of the side dishes, including crumbled feta, fried pancetta cubes, and crisp potato sticks.
But wait! Two further hot side choices are served out of giant steaming trays set next to the main courses, so you may not realize they exist until you’ve walked that far. Those are actually the best sides, including a pale but delectable mac and cheese, as well as a vegetable stew with a dark savory broth. Next comes a choice of four main dishes: lemony chicken chunks, shredded lamb with chickpeas, tomato-braised beef, and cod with leeks. They, too, have a host of sprinkles and sauces to be selected. Finally, a slice of toast comes with a choice of two spreads, fava or feta.
While making so many choices might be annoying, the food is really quite wonderful and not a bad deal at $11.90 per bowl (really, a biodegradable tray). Of the main dishes some friends and I tasted, the lamb stew was the best, with the beef a close second, though both could have used more gravy. The chefs of record are Greek natives Yannis Tsiakos and Dionisis Liakopoulos, with Miltos Karoumpas listed as consultant — though the food really seems more like home cooking than restaurant fare.
Maybe the menu will become more ambitious and varied as the place realizes that, once the novelty has worn off, Fournos Theophilos is just another Greek restaurant with an emphasis on pastries, competing with other Greek and Turkish cafes in the surrounding blocks. The pies and desserts are good too, though not so reasonably priced; some make nice snacks. Pay special attention to the rag pies ($6.50 each), wedges of filo rife with vegetables. Soups are also available, as are sandwiches that we skipped because they looked a bit skimpy.
A selection of Greek sodas in the refrigerator case downstairs is self-serve; like the pastries and sandwiches they must be carried to a point of purchase near the front end of the counter, and then brought upstairs. Indeed, assembling a meal requires trips to several stations and separate payments. Like all fast-casual restaurants today, Fournos Theophilos has its own quirky and seemingly irrational system, but the food is quite good and the place worth a visit.