Editor’s note: This is the third piece in our series uncovering the hidden gems in some of Athens’ most touristy neighborhoods. After checking out Psyri and Plaka, we now turn to Syntagma.
The quiet neighborhood where Makalo is located, right between Syntagma and Plaka, is home to some good restaurants (such as old-fashioned Paradosiako) and even to a strip of ethnic joints located on bustling Apollonos Street. Considering the area’s proximity to some of the biggest hotels in Athens and to the ultra-touristy Plaka, however, it’s rather surprising that not many visitors have caught on to the charms of Makalo, a local hangout with a fun vibe and great Greek-style cocktails.
Thirty-something owners Pantelis and Zacharias used to work at one of Athens’ best-known cocktail bars before deciding a year and a half ago to open an all-day bar and restaurant. They named their place after a traditional Northern Greek gravy, made with a flour roux, tomato, paprika and olive oil, that is used as a flavoring in some meatball and chicken dishes (oddly, the venue’s namesake food item does not appear anywhere on the menu). Makalo has a vaguely tropical feel: the walls are painted a bright avocado-green and there is as an enormous rectangular wall painting of parrots, as well as a few plants that dot the dining area; two other walls are lined with blackboards. Diners, who include couples, families and groups of businessmen, are invited to cool themselves off using one of the venue’s delicate hand fans.
This laid-back vibe extends to the menu, which emphasizes quality ingredients and simple but modern Greek cooking, and features about 10 main dishes and two to three daily specials. Particularly noteworthy are the salads, which come in generous portions and are some of the best we’ve had in Athens. The delightfully fresh halloumi salad, which combined the fried Cypriot cheese with spearmint and cucumber bathed in a tomato vinaigrette, played with all the elements of good Greek cooking and tasted wonderfully on a hot summer’s day. In the salad of lentils, arugula, tomato and paximadi – a crispy rusk from the island of Kythira (aka Cythera) made with a yellow corn flour and olive oil – the bread beautifully complemented the lentil and tomato flavors. There are also a number of pasta dishes, as well as a lovely oven-baked beef schnitzel served with prosciutto and mozzarella and accompanied by a tagliatelle with lemon sauce and cheese. This whopper of a dish is quite heavy but the quality of the meat is superb.
The food is only one of the reasons we love Makalo. This spot is one of the few places in Athens that make an effort to experiment with local products to create original cocktails. At a time when even bartenders in the city’s five-star hotels associate the meaning of the phrase “Greek cocktail” with ouzo and orange juice (yes, this has happened!), Makalo is light-years ahead in terms of experimenting with Greek ingredients. There is actually no cocktail menu, but co-owner Zacharias, who is also the bartender and mixologist, will ask you a few questions and create something original for you. The “Greek Mai Tai” we sampled – made with rum, kitron (a lemon-flavored liqueur made from citron leaves on the Greek island of Naxos) and a traditional Greek alternative to orgeat syrup called soumada – was refreshing and tasted like nothing we’d ever tried before. We also tried an interesting cocktail called “Soil and Green,” which combined basil, cardamom, lemon and rum.
With their unique local spin, Makalo’s mixed drinks are just the right accompaniment to a menu that doesn’t take itself too seriously – and that’s something even the most world-weary Athens denizen can appreciate.
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