If you’re looking to escape the dry heat and atmosphere of Riverside (which is something we could all take a break from every once and a while) then you may find The Castle Restaurant to be a spectacular getaway that offers a surprising variety of both food and entertainment. This recently opened restaurant provides an exotic cuisine that brings a refreshing Mediterranean dining experience straight to the heart of Riverside.

Looks may be deceiving, which is something that must be taken into account before driving up to The Castle Restaurant on La Cadena Drive. The initial appearance of the building may be unflattering at first; however, despite its outward appearance, The Castle Restaurant has much to offer. The second I stepped inside I immediately noticed two completely opposite settings that sat right next to each other. To the immediate left was a large sports bar while directly to the right was a large, exquisite dining area. The contrast between the two areas was astonishing. The sports bar to the left was filled with everything you need to have a good night out watching the game. The room was filled with multiple couches and tables for seating as well as more than enough TV sets to watch whatever sports event might be going on at the time.

To the right side of the entrance was a completely different world. The dining area to the right was a spacious, clean, well-lit room that gave off the atmosphere of an authentic Mediterranean paradise. Every piece of furniture from the tables to the dining couches were brand-new and spotless. The black leather seats and red tablecloths will make you feel like you are truly dining in luxurious Mediterranean royalty. Not only are there beautiful paintings of lush countrysides on the walls, there is also soothing music playing simultaneously with the sound of an indoor waterfall.

Soon after stepping in I was immediately directed to the dining area where I sat down and took a look at the menu. The first thing that struck my mind was that I had absolutely no clue what any of the food items on the menu were. Not only was the menu completely unfamiliar to me, it was also filled with a vast amount of options. After much thought and deliberation I decided to order the dish named Meza for Two. This is a $40 dish that serves two people and includes hummus, mutabal, labneh, feta cheese, grape leaves, tabbouleh, kibbeh nayyeh, two kibbeh maklieh, two falafels, fatayer cheese and a basket full of pita bread. If you’re completely overwhelmed with all these new terms, you are definitely not alone. Once the dish arrived, I was once again perplexed with what to start with first and how to mix all the foods and dips that were available.

I started out by dipping the pita bread into the three dipping sauces, which were the hummus, mutabal and labneh. Each one was delicious and had its own unique, light flavor. The hummus had a smooth and creamy taste that had flavors of garlic, salt and chickpeas, none of which were overwhelming. Each taste was light and mixed together in a perfect way. The second dip was mutabal, which was comparable to the hummus; however, it was thicker and had a bit stronger and saltier flavor. The last of the dips was called labneh, which is an unsweetened, light yogurt dip that adds an overall interesting flavor to the entire meal.

Up next on the menu was the kibbeh nayyeh which is a plate of ground-up raw meat mixed in with wheat, which sounds unappealing at first. However, this dish turned out to be my favorite part of the meal. The kibbeh nayyeh has a great flavor that can best be compared to slices of salami. The next two main dishes included the falafels and the kibbeh maklieh. The falafels were football-shaped with ground meat inside and a deep-fried crust on the outside. The kibbeh maklieh was similar except with a bready, vegetarian center. Both had satisfying, hearty flavors that were once again delicious but not overwhelming. These were the main courses provided at the table yet there were even more options available to be mixed and combined to one’s desire.

To finish off the meal I was presented with two desserts on the house, baklava and halawat jibn. The first was a crunchy, flaky square of sweetened pistachio nuts mixed with rosewater while the second was a soft and chewy treat made of mozzarella dough topped with whipped cream. Both desserts were absolutely amazing and a great change of pace from the typical ice cream and brownies you will find anywhere else.

The incredible meal offered at The Castle Restaurant only scratches the surface of what the place has to offer. Despite all the great features already mentioned, I casually refrained from mentioning the fact that The Castle Restaurant is also a hookah bar, where guests are welcomed to order a hookah and smoke in the beautiful patio area where there is tons of fresh air — not to mention the fact that there is also an arcade for kids and a large hall that can be used for all sorts of parties and events. The Castle Restaurant is truly a place with something for everyone of every age. This new restaurant is definitely deserving of much more attention and has the potential to become a new hub for UCR students as well as a new available location for all sorts of student events.