Editor’s note: In this post, Culinary Backstreets’ Athens correspondent, Despina Trivolis, reflects on the recent demise of two of her city’s oldest restaurants.
Our colleagues in Istanbul often lament that their favorite local, traditional eateries are being pushed out and replaced by impersonal Westernized food chains. Here in Athens, it’s a whole different story. Longstanding, locally owned venues are closing down one after the other these days. Unlike in Istanbul, however, these old-fashioned places, which most of us first visited as kids or students, have fallen victim to the financial crisis and are bound to remain empty for quite some time.
The past two months have seen two of Athens’ most historic restaurants, Doris and Papandreou, shut their doors. Both were mageireia, or “cooking houses,” that were dependent to a large extent on people eating lunch there during their workday. Sadly, in a time of widespread unemployment, lunch at a restaurant, even if it’s an old-fashioned cooking house that serves Grandma-style classics, has become a luxury for many.
With Greece undergoing its fifth year of recession, the unemployment rate at an all-time high of 27%, and the economy having contracted by 30%, Greeks have never had it so bad. Restaurants have been particularly affected by the financial crisis. In September 2011, the sales tax on meals served in restaurants was raised from 13% to 23%. Nearly two years later, the government has changed its mind and is reverting back to a rate of 13%, but the tax hike has already been catastrophic for a number of small businesses that were unable to slash their prices despite the economic crisis.
In the last week of May, Athenians said goodbye to Papandreou. This venerable old institution had been located inside the city’s main meat market since 1898 and still served dishes of wonderful quality, 24 hours a day. Wandering into the meat market at dawn among the closed butchers’ shops and ending up at Papandreou was a rite of passage for any self-respecting Athenian night owl. It was a unique place: a cross between a mageireio in the daytime and an all-night diner for those who wanted to beat their hangover with its delicacy, tripe soup. Papandreou was clean and brightly lit; in fact, it had been expensively renovated 10 years ago after a fire. I still remember the first time I walked in there, at 5 a.m. in the winter of 2006, after a big night out with some friends. We were all drunk and it was very cold outside but Papandreou felt bright and cheerful. We sat at a table with an old-fashioned plaid tablecloth and ate French fries, tripe soup and chicken cooked in a red sauce, and felt warm and happy.
Doris – one of the first places we covered in Athens after Culinary Backstreets launched – closed down suddenly a few weeks ago, another victim of the financial crisis. Like Papandreou, Doris had operated as an eating house in the same location for more than 100 years. My first job in Athens as a writer was for a brand-new magazine whose offices were only a few buildings away, and some days we would have lunch at Doris as a special treat. Those were the years when Athens was still going through an intoxicating post-Olympic euphoria, and the restaurant was always packed. The guy who ran the venue, a strict, bald man named Thanos Kavatzas, knew how to keep his clients – from unruly pensioners to impatient workers – in order. In the winter I would usually eat spanakorizo, a dish of rice and spinach cooked in tomato sauce, while in the summer I preferred the stuffed peppers with cheese. Sometimes the whole editorial team, excited and giddy with joy, would sit at Doris’s marble-topped tables and order piping-hot loukoumades – doughnuts deep-fried with honey, cinnamon and walnuts on top. They were wonderful but heavy, and I always ordered a Coke with them because I knew they would give me heartburn.
At a time when Athens is on its knees, it is places like Doris and Papandreou – old-school restaurants and shops that have been around forever – that offered comfort to Athenians and gave us the feeling that everything was going to be all right. With their closing, it feels like we have been deprived of something that defined the experience of living in this city.