Taverna Plus
by Gilly Cameron Cooper

What is the essence of a good taverna? Good value Greek family cooking and barrel wine, a place for local people to gather, where eating is almost incidental to socialising with your pareia? In the taverna hotspot of central Athens – the tumble of streets at the foot of the Acropolis – Athenian businessman Paris Theodorou claims: “there isn’t a single good tavern any more; they are all for tourists” – and they do no favours for the reputation of Greek cooking. Wouldn’t it be nice if the visitor to Greece experienced the true potential of Greek cooking and the unique atmosphere that goes with it rather than the ubiquitous ‘village salad’, overcooked ‘lamp’ chops and tepid oven dishes, one-ply paper napkins and casual service.

All is not lost. A new wave of Greek eateries conserves all that is good about traditional tavernas but adds fresh ingredients of imagination, flair, variety and choice. They may be more expensive (from €25-35 a head for two courses with wine) – cool décor, good chefs, organic food and eco-sensitivity don’t come cheap – but they are essentially Greek in menu and style, and still well below international restaurant prices.

Tzitzingas & Mermingas, an olive stone’s throw from Syntagma Square, encapsulates all that a ‘moderni’ or ‘creative’ (dimiourghiki) taverna should be, and arguably pioneered the genre when the original opened in Ano Patissia in 1995 (there’s another in Xhalandri). The non-discerning tourist might overlook it because there’s no view in Mitropoleus Street, but that’s fine with Victoria Dima, daughter of one of the founders and co-manager of the Syntagma branch: “we cater for everyone, not especially for tourists,” she says. The place buzzes with Athenians having a break from work or shopping, and fast-moving waiters. And the prices are extraordinarily reasonable (“Greeks spend maybe €20-22 a head, tourists €16-18 because they eat less,”) for the imaginative and excellent food. There is not one tired taverna dish on the menu. As with many of the New Age eateries, traditional divisions of taverna and mezzedopoleio are fudged, and each customer is given an ouzerie-style glass of raki and saucer of olives on the house. A poikilia for a crowd to dip into might include mille-feuille with grilled vegetables, xhorta with feta, tomato and herbs, and succulent sesame chicken bites. Main course favourites are pork fillet with wine, capers, and aubergine and potato mash, and chicken with mastic sauce and bacon. There are nice touches: cutlery is found in the drawer of each table, and the designer quality-paper table covers are the classiest in town. Traditional meets modern in the interior design, with high walls lined with shelves like in an old grocery store.

Rustic furniture and a hint of Greece décor are de rigueur in the New Look taverna, but given a chic makeover. Gone are flag blue and varnish- brown woodwork; in come chilled out blues, greys, eau de nil, teal and terracotta. Trata, on the edge of Exarcheia sticks to a reasonably priced, standard fish taverna menu, but backlit, shiny metal colanders stud its walls, and with the white-on-white colour scheme, provide a suitable backdrop for the trendy young professional clientele.

An enclosed courtyard with walls of soft, warm Mediterranean ochres and pinks, plus state-of-the-art loos make Yiandes an oasis in the grubby backstreets of Exarchia. It also serves an excellent variety of Greek dishes with mainly organic ingredients and discernible flair.

The colourful use of vintage advertisements and posters make Oineas, in the lively heart of Psyrri, stand out, and so does its idiosyncratic but still identifiably Greek cuisine. The brilliantly designed Butcher Shop in the new nightlife mecca of Gazi, incorporates a delicatessen shop window in its striking, monochrome interior; where a full-blooded selection of Greek meat and poultry dishes is supplemented with generous portions of healthy vegetables. Sardelles, the fish restaurant next door, has the same innovative owners.

Nowadays you simply emerge from Gazi’s slick new metro station and stroll across a landscaped plateia to a cluster of modernes tavernes. But when Mamacas opened 12 years ago, it was still a seedy immigrant quarter. The eponymous mamades did all the “family cooking”, while their sons, cousins Kostas and Vassilis, injected innovative pastel style. Today, Mamacas remains, true taverna-style, “ near to the people, relaxed, and local, ” says manager Yannis Lousos. Instead of the usual xhoriopsomi you are served a delicious variety of white and brown breads; a feta dish has a magic touch of fresh mint, rabbit is spiced with mustard, and table covers and napkins don’t disintegrate on the first contact with food and spilt wine.

In the nouveau taverna, food ranks equally with atmosphere. Old favourites may still be on the menu, but are seasoned with new ingredients and wider choice. Salads branch out from the inevitable xhoriatiki to embrace rocket (arugola), sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh herbs; you can have cappuccino or Galliko café as well as instant and Elliniko; regional recipes inject variety and character. Around the corner from Mamacas, Spitakia offers turkey with plums and figs from Epirus and wild boar in Nemea wine, although they’re twice the price of a kokkinisto in a neighbourhood tavern. Avissinia in Monastiraki also has strong regional flavour, and a dark, cosy, paradosiako interior. For the price of two servings of delicious moussaka with spinach you could buy a copy of the cook book by owner Keti Koufonikola.

When does a taverna become a restaurant? Mani Mani in Koukaki is my favourite top-end modern taverna. I feel as if I am eating authentic Greek food – ingredients and inspiration are from the Peloponnese. But dishes such the Maniot vegetable tower and pepper sauce, or pork with Mani goats cheese and figs in honey and almond sauce, are spiced with a real sense of adventure. There are ghosts of traditional taverna style in the tables and chairs. With its candlelit stairs leading up to elegant neo-Classical dining rooms, and restaurant manners and service, it is not exactly ‘for the people’, but restaurants like this remain accessible to the average pocket and are certainly giving a much-needed boost to Greek cooking.

Mani Mani 10 Falirou, Koukaki, 210 9218 180
Butcher Shop, 19 Persefonis, Gazi 118 54 Athens, 210 3413 440 info@butchershop.gr
Trata,Themistokleous 8 & Nikitara 9, 210 3838531 
Tzitsikas & Mermingas,12-14 Mitropoleus, Syntagma,Tel: 210 324 7607
Oineas, Psyri ,Aisopou 9, Plateia Psyri, 210 3215614
Yiandes, 44 Valtetsiou. ExarcheiaTel: 210 3301 369
Mamacas, Persefonis 41, 2103464984
Spitakia, Dekeleown 24 & Zaupreos, Gazi, 2103412323
Avisinia,7 Kinetou, 210 321704