Editor’s note: Our second stop on CB’s Global Bar Crawl is in Athens, where two classic old watering holes have been tending to the drinking needs of locals for decades.
If there’s one realm in which Athens has improved by leaps and bounds since the economic crisis began, it may very well be the city’s bar scene. Perhaps this can be attributed to a sense of nihilism or an uncertain future, but Athens has never had so much to offer in terms of drinking. From theme bars specializing in meatballs and cocktails to boîtes with a different DJ every night to converted bistros in former fabric shops, the list of venues is endless and endlessly varied.
Behind the flash of the new scene, though, there is another world of older, more traditional bars. When writing about two of Athens’ best old-fashioned bars, Galaxy and Au Revoir, it would be easy to throw around words such as “vintage” or “retro,” but that would be missing the point. Both have remained unchanged for decades, but they are real landmarks of Athenian culture, not just some interior decorator’s fantasy.
Galaxy, located downtown – not to be confused with the cocktail bar in the Hilton with the same name – is hidden inside a stoa, an arcade on busy Stadiou Street. It’s what Greeks like to call an “American bar,” like the kind of big American-style drinking houses that opened in Athens after the Second World War. Galaxy started operating in a nearby location in 1972 and has been at its current, hallway-like space since 1991. The intellectuals, journalists and seasoned old-timers who come here take up residence at the enormous old-fashioned wooden bar, with its padded rail in dark red leather – the perfect place to rest one’s arm while drinking. There is one small table at the back, but most people stand either in front of the outsized mirror surrounded by yellowing pictures of poets or right at the bar, which faces a series of photos of all the regulars – what locals refer to as the Galaxy Wall of Fame.
The soul of the whole operation is Yannis Alabanos, an old-school bartender respected by generations of Athenian drinkers and always dapper in his button-down and tie. Alabanos is the person you go to when you want a serious, skillfully made classic cocktail. To accompany your old-fashioned or amaretto sour, there are snacks such as toasted bread with Gruyère and mustard and blue cheese and olives.
Au Revoir speaks of a different old Athens. The bar is located on Patission, the avenue that connects Omonia Square, the center of the old town, to Kypseli, Athens’ most desirable neighborhood back in the 1960s. Today, an air of faded grandeur seeps about the neoclassical buildings that line the street. Brothers Lyssandros and Thodoris Papatheodorou opened Au Revoir in 1958. Aristomenis Provelegios, one of Greece’s most famous architects, designed this aesthetic masterpiece. From the painted ceiling to the rattan fixtures, this place is old Athens at its glorious best. There is a small wooden attic here where our parents’ generation used to meet on (illicit) first dates in more conservative times. More than a half-century later, Lyssandros continues to hold down the fort, regaling visitors with colorful tales from the bar’s storied past. Legend has it that Frank Sinatra came to the bar after a concert in 1962. He sat down with two bodyguards, drank from a bottle of Jack Daniels that he had brought with him, left a hefty tip and then departed.
Au Revoir serves an excellent dry martini and, in the old Athenian tradition, a variety of aperitifs and cognacs. You’ll find students, intellectuals, writers and couples in equal measure here, all sitting under framed paintings and smoking like there’s no tomorrow. Apparently, Lyssandros thought of selling or renting the place out a few years ago, but he wanted to make sure it would fall into the right hands and has yet to find a suitable candidate. In the meantime, he insists he’ll keep this place going for years to come. Cheers to that!