In Piraeus there is a tacit agreement among locals to keep treasured taverns and restaurants hidden, lest they be overrun by the tourists arriving on the cruise ships that dock in town. This is particularly true of Keratsini, a neighborhood on the outskirts of the port city.
In 1922, Keratsini became home to Greek refugees driven out of Smyrna, the coast of the Sea of Marmara and Constantinople during fighting between Greece and the nascent Turkish state. At first, these immigrants were treated poorly and suffered poverty and hardships, but eventually they became a vital part of the Greek population. In 1992, the dissolution of the USSR brought new refugees from Albania, Georgia, Uzbekistan and other countries to Keratsini, as well as other parts of Greece. Today, the remaining original Greek refugees, their descendants and the newer refugees live side-by-side in this working-class area, keeping their traditions alive.
One of the “hidden” places where Keratsini locals like to gather is Taxidevontas, located near the Anastasi Cemetery, just a few steps away from the very place where, in 1934, renowned musician Márkos Vamvakáris formed the band that would popularize rebetiko, the folk music that some people describe as the Greek version of the Delta blues. The name of this tavern comes from the acronym that identifies passenger ferries in Greece and means “traveling,” and the owners, Kostas Zafeiropoulos and Yannis Zois, think of it as an invitation for their guests to go on a voyage in taste and time.
Zafeiropoulos and Zois are longtime amateur fishermen, and over the years they had become friends with many boat captains and other fishermen all over Greece. Realizing that they already had the kind of seafood purveyors that other restaurateurs would kill for, they opened Taxidevontas in 2002, in the neighborhood where they were born and raised and continue to live, bringing their relatives on board to work as staff. Those fishermen friends now show up daily – sometimes even during dinnertime – with their fresh catch.
That catch might include mussels, shrimp, lobster and squid, as well as mackerel that the restaurant smokes in-house, tuna, and other fish big and small that you can have fried or grilled to order. Zafeiropoulos and Zois are always on the lookout for unusual specimens, such as ray, the cartilaginous fish that is related to skate, to put on the daily changing menu, even if there’s enough just for one or two lucky diners.
The seagoing theme is hard to miss: the interior is awash in blue, with fishing nets and shells hanging from the ceiling. The staff is polite and warm and happy to help customers navigate the menu.
We started our dinner by ordering a hearty bottle of ouzo, the anise-flavored aperitif that goes well with seafood. The tavern has a wide variety, including bottles from Pilavas, Tirnavou and Samara. Despite the hot weather that day, we couldn’t pass up the soup made with redfish and seasonal vegetables in a rich, invigorating broth. The tomato salad was compellingly simple, combining slices of the fruit with a little salt and pickled kritamon, or samphire, a wild coastal green. One of our favorite dishes was the shellfish salad, with steamed clams, razor clams, oysters and mussels served with a garlicky dressing with olive oil and lemon. We had the sardines sliced and grilled, which we like best with just a drizzle of lemon. We were grateful to have grilled bread and French fries on the table with the house specialty of anchovies cooked in a spicy mustard sauce so that we could sop up every last drop from our plates.
The end of our meal put us squarely back on land with a lemon sorbet as a palate-cleanser, along with a shot of mastic liqueur and a platter of sweets: Greek yogurt with homemade jam and orange and walnut pie. Based on that final course, it would appear that Zafeiropoulos and Zois have the right friends in other places, too.