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Across the Nation and Down the Street

Mediterranean Nights In Porter Square

By Jason M. Solomon

There's a restaurant down in Porter Square which some compare to Boston's favorite neighborhood bar.

Tina Rasta, an employee at the restaurant, says, "It's like Cheers--a place where everybody knows your name."

A little different. Imagine Cheers--the bar, the regulars, the bartender who "knows everybody"--with the lights dimmed, exotic lanterns hanging from the ceiling, fake palm trees between tables and a belly dancer swaying her hips to the sound of Middle Eastern music.

What you've got is Averof, a colorful Greek and Middle Eastern restaurant which celebrated its 20th anniversary last month.

For Greeks in the Boston area, Averof is a friendly atmosphere with a touch of the old world. For Americans, it offers a taste of the exotic.

Averof is set apart from other Greek restaurants by its live entertainment at night. A Greek crooner backed by "The Averof Band." The buxom Elena asking people to come on stage and join a line dance. And the seductive Salisa stripping off the veils and leaving not much else.

Salisa, a Sicilian whose real name is Celeste Cimino, spends some time on stage doing the belly thing and some time talking with customers.

"I make so many wonderful friends here," she says. "It's a really comfortable atmosphere."

Salisa, who works four or five nights a week at Averof and performs at private parties, says she "loves" what she does. Even on nights like last Saturday when she's "feeling lousy" and the biggest challenge is "going up there and smiling."

After a mini-performance on stage, Salisa moves to the floor, still shakin' and bakin', working the room for tips. The dollar bills get placed in some sensitive spots, but she doesn't seems to mind.

"The people here are gentlemen," she says. "They're never fresh about it."

Among the "gentlemen" Salisa has entertained are Tip O'Neill, Michael Dukakis and members of the Saudi royal entourage which recently visited Boston.

There are many ladies in the house; they might even outnumber the men. But no one seems offended by Salisa's performance.

"Maybe lewd young men like you see an erotic dance," Averof owner Raymond Banzar says to this reporter, "but the older people see the charm, the art."

But an older man sitting right in front of the stage seems to contradict Raymond's claim. Celebrating his 95th birthday at Averof, Harry Collias says that he likes the "different movements" of the belly dancer. His smile suggests that more than aesthetic appreciation is at work.

For many like Collias, Averof is a place to go on special occasions. Nick Koempel came all the way from Cape Cod to Averof to celebrate his 27th birthday with his family.

"It's a birthday treat for me," says Koempel. "We're Greek, and I love belly dancing."

Many of Averof's customers come to the restaurant quite frequently, according to Averof employees and patrons.

"Thirty-five to 50 percent of our customers are regulars," says Rasta, who was handling the coat check.

Sitting at the bar with Salisa, Dimitros Vocas, 47, says he was one of the restaurant's first customers 20 years ago and now comes into the restaurant at least three or four days a week.

Much of the customer loyalty can be attributed to Raymond and John Banzar, the brothers who own Averof. One of them is at the door every night, greeting guests and trying to make them feel welcome.

"I let them feel comfortable, like guests in my own home," Raymond says, although he admits that his hospitality partially stems from the fact that his customers put "bread and butter" on his own table.

Valentine's Day is a major event at Averof. A special menu, called "Lover's Feast" or "Aphrodisiac," is created for the occasion. The multi-course meal includes a salad labeled "Lovers Only."

Raymond believes that olive oil is the key to the effectiveness of his food as an aphrodisiac.

"A jigger of olive oil keeps you healthy and gives you enough energy to get through the night's work," says Raymond.

When every couple leaves on Valentine's Eve, they are presented with a small package of oshta, which Raymond calls "a kind of breakfast you give to honeymooners the day after their wedding night in the Old Country."

The Banzars seem to be successful in recreating a piece of the "Old Country," even if belly dancing comes more from Turkey than Greece. And even if Salisa is Sicilian.

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