A visit to Varsos, a culinary landmark in Athens that looks much the same as it did 60 years ago, is like traveling back in time to one of the city’s grand patisseries of the 1950s. The venue, which is still in the hands of the Varsos family who originally opened it, is one of the most famous of Athens’ old-style coffeehouses and is the only one that has kept its traditional charm over the last several decades.
Varsos was established in 1892 in central Athens, but it is the wonderfully old-fashioned Kifisia location, to which the patisserie moved in 1932, that has made the venue famous. At the beginning of the 20th century, Kifisia was a holiday destination for rich Athenians, and their stately summer mansions still dot this beautiful yet ever-expanding northern suburb, which is now popular with professionals, families and expats. Thanks to the pedestrianization of the area, Kifisia is also one of the few parts of Athens where you can comfortably stroll around.
Despite the changes in the surrounding area, Varsos seems to be stuck in a comforting time bubble. With its decorative high ceilings and beautiful mosaic floors framed with pink marble, the interior feels nothing less than grand. The huge main room, which buzzes with activity at all times, is home to a bunch of ancient, industrial-size fridges trademarked with brand names that haven’t been produced for over 50 years. The employees, old-timers themselves who have been working here for ages, are each assigned to a specific section, whether whipped cream, meringues, pastries, tsoureki or cakes. The purchasing system is equally old-fashioned: You tell the person behind the counter what you want, they note the price on a slip of paper, you pay at the cash register and then you are handed your goodies.
The sit-down area at the back seems to be dedicated to a different era, the ’70s. The furniture – mustard-leather seats and round, wooden tables against a background of avocado walls – is so retro that hipsters will weep with joy. There is also an outdoor patio garden, where customers can sit by a beautiful statue during the summer months. If you do want to sit down for a cup of coffee with your sweets, though, opt for Greek coffee – despite all of Varsos’s charms, the venue has still not mastered the art of a good cappuccino.
Varsos serves all the old-style Greek desserts anyone could wish for, but it is best known for three specialties. The first is its plain whipped cream. The store has a whole fridge dedicated to pure, fresh whipped cream, which is sold in plastic jars bearing Varsos’s blue and red logo. The whipped cream is rich and pleasantly fatty but not sweet and, as any good housewife from Athens’ northern suburbs can testify, it is never, ever runny. The second specialty is the meringues, which are probably the best in Athens. Sold in a dizzying variety of shapes and sizes, these foamy beauties simply melt in your mouth.
But our personal favorite – and quite possibly the preference of the entire generation of Athenians who grew up on this recipe – is the tsoureki, a type of sweet bread that is popular in Middle Eastern countries. Heavy on eggs and with an almost yellowish hue, the Varsos version is very similar to French brioche. They use the same bread to make their own version of croissants, resulting in a puffy, croissant-shaped brioche. There is one more thing that almost brings tears to the eyes of those who were raised on Varsos products: the “gemisto croissant” (“filled croissant”), a sort of rectangular tsoureki with chocolate, walnuts and brown sugar. Varsos also makes traditional syrupy sweets like galaktoboureko (milk pie) and kataifi, which resemble similar desserts found in the Middle East.
The patisserie’s marathon operating hours – it opens at 7 a.m. and closes after midnight – are a testament to its ability to pull in a steady stream of customers. For Athenians, it seems, any time is the right time for a little culinary time travel.