Kolonaki, or “little column” in Greek, might just be Athens’ most iconic neighborhood, forever synonymous as it is in the minds of Athenians with the wealth and idiosyncrasies of its affluent residents.
Occupying the area from Syntagma square up to Lycabettus hill, it’s full of swanky boutiques, cafes and restaurants. However, one of its most famous hidden gems is actually the unfussy Philippou, a small family-run eatery that sits on a tree-dotted street away from the hustle and bustle of the main square.
Founded in 1923 by Kostas Philippou, it began as a humble taverna with earthen floors and big barrels filled with home-made wine. In 1968 the building where the taverna stood was converted, like thousands of others in the 60s, into a modern block of flats, and the taverna reopened on the ground floor in the same spot it occupies today, a few steps below street level.
Only a few photographs remain of that humble past. Philippou these days resembles much more a proper restaurant, with elegant linen tablecloths and stemmed wine glasses. Still run by the same family, Kostas Philippou, the grandson of the original owner, and his Greek-Australian wife, Patricia, are now in charge. They are chic and soft-spoken, with the big friendly smiles of good hosts, and soon we understand why: most of their clientele are regulars, who either eat here or have their food to go every day.
These customers live or work nearby and belong to older generations of Athenians who are used to a specific type of cooking not easily prepared for solo diners. Ladera, soups, pastitsio and moussaka are among the 20 or so dishes prepared daily for lunch or the 15 for dinner. Approximately 400 portions of food are sold per day, and cooking takes place twice a day: early in the morning for lunchtime service and around 4pm for dinner service.
Despite these impressive numbers, the food at Philippou still tastes home-cooked and satisfyingly bourgeois. “We try to keep things light and easy on the stomach, so we don’t use many spices or a lot of oil in our cooking,” Kostas Philippou said. This was evident in the tender pork lemonato (a simple pork stew with lemon) served with perfectly crisp fries and the grilled grouper with boiled vegetables.
“There is very little room for improvisation, as most of the recipes we use are the original ones. People come here to eat the dishes they have loved for many years, and we can’t disappoint them. Things need to taste the same as they always have.”
This doesn’t mean of course that there aren’t new recipes with a bit of modern flair added to the menu, like the beautifully fresh spinach salad with goat’s milk cheese and crispy bacon.
Portions are generous and prices quite reasonable for the quality of the food (€17 to €20 per person with drinks). There is a house wine, but it might be worth spending a little bit extra to try one of the good, well-priced bottles of Greek wines.
At the end of the meal we were treated to some lovely stewed quince. “We used to make a variety of desserts,” Philippou said, “but after the financial crisis, people stopped buying them. We now only make stewed quince, semolina halva and chocolate salami and they are always on the house.”
As we left we noticed that nobody was smoking, an unusual and welcome occurrence (despite the smoking ban now being in effect for almost ten years, most places do not enforce it). And it’s also worth noting that Philippou is perhaps one of the few restaurants in Greece not open on Saturday night or Sunday lunchtime, so plan your visit accordingly.