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Exarchia is one of Athens’ liveliest neighborhoods. Home to students and intellectuals alike, it’s filled with bookshops, music stores and “free-thinking spaces,” an interesting bookstore/café hybrid where political debates and local residents’ council meetings are sometimes held. The area looks slightly worn-down: the neoclassical and post-war buildings are littered with graffiti tags and music posters, which means – as visitors to other European capitals might know – that there are great places for eating and drinking here.

The ever-popular Yiantes on Valtetsiou Street is one of our favorite venues in this neighborhood. Valtetsiou is home to some of the area’s most interesting bars and restaurants; most are open quite late and in the summer they are buzzing with activity. Right next to the restaurant is Riviera, one of the oldest of Athens’ surprisingly numerous outdoor cinemas, which often shows classics; the voices in the films can be heard throughout the neighborhood, adding to the lively atmosphere.

In the first decade of the millennium, Yiantes was one of the first restaurants to jump on the creative cooking bandwagon, offering the classics of Greek cuisine with a fresher, lighter twist; the restaurant has since gone through a number of renovations and chefs. Its biggest plus is its beautiful summer courtyard, with walls painted in pastel shades and tables placed among plants and trees; the overall effect is that of eating in a very upmarket island taverna. The crowd is mixed: artists, intellectuals, actors and businessmen with artistic pretentions sit at the tables making small talk until the wee hours.

Yiantes is one of the few places in Athens to use organic ingredients wherever possible and, more significantly, one of the few tavernas that offer organic house wine; it is excellent, so don’t bother with anything else. This also must be one of the few restaurants in town that doesn’t offer Coca-Cola but a Greek alternative, EPSA Cola, instead. (We prefer the EPSA lemonade, which is absolutely delicious.) Frequent regional cooking nights feature, say, dishes and wine from Crete or from Drama in Northern Greece.

Although the menu uses Greek ingredients, there is also a great deal of experimentation involved. Surimi and green apple sauce add zing to a green salad, for example, while a spicy take on the kebab is paired with grilled peppers and tomato pickle. Cheese gets special attention on the appetizer menu: grilled mastelo – a chewy delicacy from the island of Chios – is served with clementine jam, while Cypriot halloumi is accompanied by louza, a type of air-dried meat from the island of Tinos. Among the main courses, we recommend the risotto with red wine, mushrooms, truffle oil and fresh thyme, and the beef cheeks in wine and mashed potatoes.

With the exception of saragli, a type of phyllo pastry with walnut that is drenched in syrup, the desserts are very much of the international variety, such as butterscotch or chocolate pie and mille-feuille. Although Athens is not exactly vegetarian-friendly, Yiantes caters to vegetarians quite well. Expect to pay about €25-30, ambient sound from the nearby outdoor cinema included.

Published on July 31, 2012

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