There are places that have been around so long that they’ve become emblematic of a city’s entire eating culture. In Athens, Stani (meaning “sheepfold” or “barnyard,” depending on your definition) is certainly one of them. It may have a rustic-sounding name, but this wonderful, old-fashioned dairy bar – in business since 1931 – is an urban fixture.
Sadly, the tradition of the dairy bar – a place where people would go to buy milk and yogurt, or to eat rice pudding and dessert with their coffee – has all but died out. In the 1960s, Athens and Piraeus (Athens’ nearby port city, now effectively a suburb) were home to some 1,600 dairy bars; today, only Stani is left.
Stani is located behind historic Omonia Square, once the center of Athens’ commercial district but today a somewhat forlorn area that has been in a downward spiral for the last 15 years. The economic crisis hasn’t helped, with hotels and shops closing right, left and center. A three-minute walk from the Omonia metro station down (not so pretty) Marika Kotopouli Street, Stani appears suddenly, like a culinary oasis in the midst of a commercial desert. The neighborhood may have lost its appeal, but the quality of the products Stani sells is so superb that the place remains popular with Athenians of all generations (although, being an old-fashioned place, the dairy bar is usually full of pensioners, which is part of the charm here).
The store is small and the waiters are dressed in the traditional combo of black trousers and white shirt that is the standard uniform in old-school Greek eateries. You can either sit down (there are a couple of tables inside and more in a shaded area outside) or do takeaway. Right behind the giant fryer where the house specialty, loukoumades – deep-fried pastries doused in honey – are made, there are industrial-size refrigerators with glass-lined doors through which you can see what’s on offer.
Among the must-try items here is the moustalevria, a thick, brown pudding made from grape must (unfiltered and unfermented juice from freshly pressed grapes) that is a seasonal delicacy offered in Greece in the fall. The taste and texture are unique: picture a sweet and fragrant concoction that hovers somewhere between pudding and an earthy Jell-O. Stani also serves the whole range of old-fashioned Greek desserts – including the “little mouse dessert” (a chocolate dessert shaped like a mouse), walnut pie and galaktoboureko (custard and semolina in phyllo) – from a menu has been the same for more than 30 years and that remains popular with customers who were raised on these dishes.
But the whole reason to go to Stani is for the outstanding house yogurt, which is made with sheep’s milk that comes from small farms near Athens. The yogurt is served the traditional Greek way, on a plate with honey and walnuts. Few words do justice to the taste of the yogurt, which is so thick that at points it is almost solid. The honey and walnuts are the perfect accompaniment, and the portions are so generous that the yogurt is practically a full meal.
It’s also worth noting that, in a city that definitely doesn’t specialize in breakfast (most Athenians tend to eat something on the go), Stani is one place where you can actually eat a full-on breakfast: warm fresh milk, fresh butter, fried eggs (they fry them with full-fat, old-fashioned butter), bread, orange juice and Greek coffee are on offer.
Stani has belonged to the same family for years and there is an extreme amount of pride here. Adorning the walls in gilded frames are awards of excellence from the 1953 Thessaloniki International Fair. The awards may have been earned 59 years ago, but the truth is that little has changed at Stani since.
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Published on October 30, 2012