Avli is one of those places you have to be introduced to by someone who’s already been there. Although a sign does exist above its narrow metal door, there’s so much graffiti on either side of it, you could walk right by even if you had the address firmly in your hand or mind. Once inside, if you’re the first customer, you still might think you’ve made a mistake.
Avli means “courtyard,” but this one is narrow, much more like a back alley. Blue doors and shuttered windows the same shade as the Greek flag pierce the right wall, the left has a few potted plants and three plump alley cats comfortably ensconced on the old-fashioned rush-seated taverna chairs. A whitewashed staircase closes the space at the back, and a sheet of corrugated plexiglass offers some protection from the elements.
Funky is the word that comes to mind, an impression reinforced when you examine the faded clippings, drawings, and magazine ads hanging on the walls and pasted on the shutters (all gifts from friends), the cracked marble flagstones, the small tables with their plastic “cloths” of different colors, stripes, checks or flowers, the somewhat bedraggled garland of garlic and chili peppers hanging from a drainpipe.
We’ve come early in order to talk to Takis, who started working here in the mid 80s, and now owns the place. A slender man, with dark hair barely streaked with gray and a gentle, beguiling face, he walks with a slight limp and rarely sits for more than five minutes. At just after noon, his three employees wander in and out, taking delivery of bread and toilet paper, peeling vast quantities of potatoes into a blue bucket, scrubbing table tops and adding cheeky comments to his answers to our questions.
Takis Stamatelopoulos says he was born in Athens but comes from Kalamata. “The home of figs, olive oil and hashish,” calls a voice from the kitchen. Another shouts, “Gagaros,” using a word that means a genuine Athenian from an old family, not some country bumpkin.
One of them brings a cup of Greek coffee and Takis sits briefly.
He points to a dark cubby behind us. “This was the original shop, where the proprietor, an old guy, used to make coffees and frappes for the shopkeepers in the neighborhood. He also used to serve a sweet liqueur and brandy, but nothing else, no beers, no sodas in those days.
“Those doors you see led to shops that made all kinds of things, belts, psaroharto [paper for the fishmongers at the nearby Central Market], plastic tablecloths, shoe leather. This whole area of Psyrri was small workshops, and I used to go around with a tray, carrying coffee to the workers. I knew everyone, both in the market and on the streets. I loved it and still do.
“But eventually the old guy died, and the people who had these shops also retired and closed up, and I slowly expanded the menu, starting with sausages and fried potatoes.”
By now the menu, still simple, boasts some of Athens’s best keftedakia (succulent meatballs, with a crisp crust and a moist, meltingly soft interior), an omelette studded with pastourma and cheese, fry-ups of chicken, liver or pork with peppers, a poikilia (assortment) of mezedes, spetzofai (sausage, pepper and onion casserole), cabbage rolls with egg-lemon sauce, and very drinkable box wines.
As Takis tells us that he loves to cook and has taught his staff to make all the dishes, except for those last two, which are a cousin’s specialty, another voice from the kitchen chimes in, “she’s a great belly dancer too.”
It’s after one by now, the courtyard is beginning to fill up, and the standing electric heaters have taken the chill off. The cats have to find other seats. By 2:30 p.m. there’s not a table empty, and Takis says the same is true in the evening. “We get a lot of young people, who drink semi-sweet wine or rakomelo (raki with honey), and my wife Stella comes in to help with the cooking. We don’t have live music but we have the radio tuned to 98.8, a station with old laika [popular] songs – real music, not this new stuff.”
It’s amazing that so much good food comes out of such a small kitchen. We’ve seen bigger on modest yachts. And yet, Takis says it’s a fairly recent addition.
“I only expanded the cooking area three or four years ago. Before that, we even cooked in the courtyard.” He shows us a photo.
Whatever his secret, he has the right recipe. Avli has a firm following of local and foreign customers. The food is authentic Greek home style, the prices very reasonable and the atmosphere casual and cozy. You would not come here for haute cuisine, candlelight, and linen napkins, but if it’s backstreet fare you’re looking for, a peek into traditional Athens, you will be happy you stepped through that camouflaged door.
A sign just beside the pantry reads “The whole world is a madhouse but this is the headquarters,” and some people might think that Takis is crazy for being happy about the competition in this part of town. But no, his argument makes a lot of sense.
“A couple of decades ago after the workshops all closed, this street and others in Psyrri became quite dangerous. You wouldn’t dare come here after dark, but when I turned Avli into a taverna that’s open in the evenings too, rather than just a daytime coffee joint, other places followed, and now we have lots of comings and goings, nice spots to eat and meet, like Fani’s around the corner, the bicycle bar, and the rebetika place a few doors down, as well as the Gastronomy Museum.”
“They’re all good guys, and we boost each other,” Takis adds. “There’s more business when there are more choices.”