For more than 10 years, Hellas in Anne Arundel County has been a standby Mediterranean restaurant and bar.
The restaurant is big enough to accommodate groups, and the menu is heavy on filling, homey dishes like ravioli, lasagna and Greek specialties.
But what recently brought this family-owned mainstay to my attention was its wholehearted embrace of craft beer — Hellas beefed up its bottled beer selection, and added a 20-line draft system. Michael Stavlas, whose family owns the restaurant, said there are also plans to add a beer cellar menu.
Before, Hellas was a restaurant that could have been (and likely was) easily taken for granted — the kind of affordable, wholesome place people go to for family outings to celebrate birthdays and winning report cards.
The restaurant still needs to improve its look — which, unlike its progressive beer menu, is stale — and should give its wait staff a talking-to for its apparent lassitude while I was there.
But the restaurant's recent love affair with craft beer has raised it to a new class of dining, more fully realized and less likely to be used as a stopover on the way home from, say, a cousin's christening.
From Veterans Highway, Hellas looks like an outlet department store. It's a sizable beige box with few distinguishing features.
All that space means Hellas is comfortably divided into four ample sections. There's a dining area with about 20 tables, a U-shaped bar, a pool area with four tables and a booth designed for a DJ or, on the night I went, karaoke. The karaoke, by the way, was run by a spookily good singer when I went on a recent Tuesday night.
Size, however, does not make up for the drab decor. Though open since 1998, Hellas looks like something from 1975 — weak pastels, harsh lighting and stucco walls. A football jersey signed by Ray Lewis hangs by the bar; the usual beer ads surround the pool tables; a minuscule mural of the Greek seaside and a couple of decorative fish look over the dining room.
None of the decor complements Hellas specialties: Mediterranean food and craft beer. The beer ads make it look like a regular Bud-and-Coors sports bar. And while a landscape at a Mediterranean restaurant might be a cliche, without it, the restaurant looks awfully ordinary. I wish they had continued these modest gestures, like the fish and the small mural, throughout. It would have at least given the restaurant a little color.
While I was there, the crowd was a mix of young and old. Two young women took turns singing karaoke. The restaurant is smartly pursuing customers outside the dinner-and-pool crowd. Since upping its craft beer menu, it has started hosting beer dinners and pint nights — the next, featuring Troegs, is scheduled for Sept. 21 and will feature a special firkin of Troeg's Hopback Amber.
Everything else at Hellas is oversized: The food menu is so long it looks like a newsletter; and there are 20 beers on tap and 80 by the bottle.
Sliders ($2.50) and stuffed mushroom caps ($14.50) are some of the items that pass for bar grub here.
Desserts are made daily, according to the menu. But my apple pie, like the decor, was cold and unremarkable.
At the bar, service was aloof. My bartender seemed more interested in the football game and in cleaning up than in getting my beer. I understand it was a slow night, but, an occasional courtesy lap to see if the customers needed anything else would not have killed him. He ignored my request to heat up the pie.
Still, it's at the bar where Hellas has its saving grace: 10 nicely laid-out draft lines, on both sides of the bar. The bartender's infractions were quickly forgiven when he brought me a heavy goblet of Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter ($8.25).
Other regional and national craft brands are well-represented in the menu: Loose Cannon and Davy Jones Lager Imperial Cream Ale from Heavy Seas, Thomas Jefferson Tavern Ale from Philadelphia's Yards Brewing Co. and Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale are just some of them. By the bottle, there's Dogfish Head, Sierra Nevada and the Canadian Trois Pistoles.
The owners have made an earnest effort to cater to experienced beer drinkers, and it shows in their interesting, well-researched choices.
Without spiffing up the joint to look as modern as its beer menu, Hellas will remain a modest neighborhood restaurant. But even if it doesn't choose to update the decor, it will still be a neighborhood restaurant with some very good beer.
If you go
Back story: Open since 1998, Hellas is a restaurant and bar in Anne Arundel County. Michael Stavlas, whose family owns the restaurant, says it's always been a work in progress. Three years ago, it updated the draft system to be able to serve 20 different beers on tap. Since then, it has been cultivating a craft beer clientele, carefully updating craft selections and hosting more beer dinners and pint nights.
Parking: The restaurant has its own ample parking lot.
Signature drink: Any of the craft beers on draft.
Where: 8498 Veterans Highway, Millersville
Contact: 410-987-0948, hellasrestaurantandlounge.com
Open: The bar is open from 10:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week; the kitchen closes at 1 a.m.
Price range: Beer is $2-$10; All three cocktails on the menu — such as a Dutch Blood Orange Martini — are $7.