Sooner or later almost everyone in Athens, tourist or local, heads for the flea market, the city’s oldest bazaar, below Monastiraki Square. Although it’s busiest on Sundays, all week long you can rummage through the antiques – furniture, bric-a-brac, mirrors, paintings, vintage toys, statuettes, vases, silverware – spread out in colorful disorder in front of the small shops that line all four sides of Avissinia Square. There are still treasures to be found for those with patience, and it’s one corner of Athens that has kept its funky character more or less intact over the decades.
One treasure that requires neither a keen eye nor a connoisseur’s expertise is Café Avissinia, the square’s only establishment where the antiques are not for sale. A restaurant/watering hole where you can stop for a coffee or a full-course meal, the Café is more than just a place to grab a bite. With its old-fashioned rush-seated chairs and marble-topped tables, pink floral wallpaper, tiled floors and stained glass or painted windows, it feels part ancestral home, part elegant 19th-century Viennese coffeehouse. Portraits and landscapes fill the walls, lining the stairs to the second dining room and roof terrace; period sconces and chandeliers shed a gentle light; and porcelain platters, pitchers and vases on high shelves give diners plenty to contemplate while awaiting their order.
That the café blends in perfectly with the square was no accident. Its owner-founder, Ketty Koufonikola, chose the location because it reflected her own interest in art and antiques. And because it seemed like a good place where she could combine them with her other passions, cooking and entertaining.
As her son and current manager, Nikolas, told us, when she opened the café in 1986, the upstairs still operated as an auction house, and the all-male proprietors of the antiques shops did not take kindly to this female interloper. But Ketty was no ordinary woman. A native of Thessaloniki who’d spent many years in London, “she had a balance between her aristocratic side and her free-spirited tomboy side,” said 40-something Nikolas. “If I had to describe my mother, I’d say she’s the Greek Martha Stewart, without being such a perfectionist. She’s a great hostess but she’s also down to earth, a warm personality, and she can handle any situation. In those days, she was like Bouboulina [the legendary sea captain in the Greek War of Independence] – that rare creature, a woman who was the boss in a man’s world.
“Acceptance came in 1989, when a fire broke out in the square. Ketty remained in her kitchen all night, cooking onion soup for the shop owners, and after that they took her into their hearts. She was no longer an outsider.”
In the early days, Café Avissinia was more of a bistro than a proper restaurant, but the menu has always reflected Ketty’s background, with dishes from Macedonia – her parents were prosperous landowners from Kozani – and Cyprus, where her husband’s family originated, with additions from her own culinary experiences in international London, and even a few ideas from faithful clientele. Though the menu changes with the seasons, some offerings are permanent, such as George’s eggs (baked with sausage and tomato) and couscous with vegetables and homemade chutney, a recipe from a Greek customer from Ethiopia.
The square, which is also sometimes called Yousouroum after one of the shop owners, is doubly connected to Ethiopia: It was officially named Avissinia in honor of Haile Selassie’s aid in 1922 to Greek refugees from Turkey, while a colony of Abyssinians is said to have lived there in the more distant past.
Over the years, we’ve savored many a wonderful meal at Café Avissinia, outside on the square, inside in the atmospheric downstairs and in the bright upper dining room, whose tables look to the Acropolis, putting you in the midst of the still older city. In summer the roof terrace is open for an even more spectacular view. Some of our favorite dishes include the grilled eel, marinated gavros (anchovies), oven-baked eggplant, baked mushrooms, pork with leeks and prunes (a very Macedonian combination), koupepia (Cypriot-style vine leaves) and octopus salad. The other day this last dish was practically too pretty to eat, the magenta touches on the octopus complemented by vermilion radicchio leaves.
But as we said, this is not just a place to grab a bite or even linger over a beautifully presented, tasty meal. On weekend evenings and Sunday afternoons, Café Avissinia turns into a musical fiesta.
“It really became famous as a party place,” said Nikolas, “where VIPs, some of them royal, and ordinary folk mingled happily. You wouldn’t believe the musicians who have played here, from gypsies and passersby to many of the big names in the field, who happened to be customers, like Hadjinassios, Kelaidonis, Dalaras, Plessas, Savvopoulos. People kept coming back. For many it’s full of memories, where they fell in love or met their wives.”
We wish we’d been part of that scene. Friends who’ve been patrons since the early ’90s tell tales of dancing on the tabletops with their children, of extraordinary kefi, gaiety and warmth. “It’s a home away from home,” said one of them recently.
And that’s what Nikolas says too. Although Ketty still oversees the menu, he took over the running of the venue in the 2000s and expanded both the place and the menu. “Although I don’t want to change things, and I have so much respect for what my mother has created, I wanted to take the food to a different level. We make everything from scratch, introducing new dishes – always depending on what we find in the market – and we work as a team. We train our chefs and they stay with us” – Diana, the Bulgarian bartender/salad arranger told us that she’s been with the café for 15 years and wouldn’t dream of leaving – “and we listen to our customers.
“There’s a lot of emotional connection between us and our customers. In the long run, the customers also determine the success of a place. They are part of our team, too.”
Ketty Koufonikola, who also gives seminars on cooking in such disparate places as Israel and Colombia, produced a cookbook of Café Avissinia recipes in 2003. The Greek edition is out of print but it is still available in English.