You don’t need the excuse of a ferry departure to head for the port of Rafina, on Attica’s east coast. Its long, open beach is a favorite among windsurfers, its fish stalls carry the catch from most of the central Aegean and, most important, it offers a handful of excellent eateries. But how can you separate the standouts from the run-of-the-mill?
If you’re going to catch a boat, you’ll most likely opt for a bite in one of the establishments nearest the water, where cafés and tavernas alternate with ticket agents and fish stalls. Two here, Ta Kavouria tou Asimaki and Seirines, stand out from the rest, and not surprisingly, their menus focus on the sea. But in the square above the port, Sta Kala Kathoumena specializes in mezedes and main dishes with a touch of Anatolia, while a few blocks further inland I Kali Kardia tou Nikola attracts universal acclaim for its meat and customers from as far away as Athens. The first three are, in age-old Greek tradition, family-run.
Ta Kavouria tou Asimaki (“Asimaki’s Crabs”) is the first fish taverna you’d come to if you were to start at the top of the seafront. It’s also the oldest, and with two floors it gives you the option of sitting above the busy street scene and gazing out at the open sea. The day the present owner, Kosmas, was born (a son at last after three daughters), his father treated the whole town. We remember the father well – as do most Rafiniotis. The three sisters have all worked at the taverna; now their daughters do.
Kosmas’s father started the taverna on the sunken hull of a ship in the harbor, where you can still see its outline. Friends tell us of eating there with the waves crashing around them. Kosmas’s sister Marina is an exceptional seafood cook. She has never served us a fish that is less than impeccable, and everything is always served with a smile, naturally, since they’ve known us for over 20 years.
They have yummy gavros (anchovies) marinato when in season, a mean fish soup that’s always on the simmer and raw and cooked salads – such as the great crab one (whence the name) – that vary according to the season. Meals end with a serving of homemade halva, spoon sweet of shredded carrots or melon, on the house.
In winter there’s a fire in the fireplace to huddle by. In summer there’s the roof deck from which you can watch the comings and goings and pretend you’re the harbor master.
Seirines (“Sirens”), in the middle of the chain of shops facing the port, is a relative newcomer, just four years old this July. Its owners, Stratos/Steve and Panayota/Pamela Halkiotis, have roots in Lesbos and Sydney, Australia, where her parents opened the city’s first bouzouki club. Blonde, blue-eyed and pleasantly plump, Pam told us she’d been cooking for the family since the age of 11 – “children of immigrants always have to help out.” Amazingly, she is still a passionate cook, whose enthusiasm hasn’t been dimmed by hard work. “I do all my cooking from scratch and we’re open 24/7, but I love what I’m doing, that’s my problem.”
We love what she’s doing too. Although Sirens opened as an ouzotsipouradiko – being from Lesbos, Steve knows a lot about ouzo – it has become a full-fledged restaurant with an imaginative menu the size of a small book. Flipping through it, you’re lured by names like thalassotarahi (“stormy seas”), delectable mixed seafood sauced with wine, mascarpone and sambal oelek, and the wealth of ideas, such as seafood spaghetti steam-baked in parchment paper, shrimp omelet, volcanic calamari. Says Pam, “We called the place Sirens because I wanted to entrance customers with tastes rather than songs.” And entranced we’ve been each time we’ve dined there, unable to decide which dish we prefer among the aforementioned – or shrimp-crabcakes, the Sirens salad, the beets and skordalia (garlic sauce made with almonds instead of potatoes or walnuts) or, or, or…
Reading the menu, designed and composed by the Halkiotis’ son, Alkis (Alcibiades), we do as we’re told and relax and indulge ourselves on this “personal odyssey … where there’s no need to worry about being turned into a pig … by pretty Circe,” though the scales may tell you otherwise the next morning.
With its reasonable prices, Alkis’s beguiling wall paintings and the casually elegant atmosphere, Sirens is a perfect place for a celebration of any kind and a wonderful start to any island weekend or longer holiday.
Sta Kala Kathoumena, on the south side of the large square above the port, focuses on food with an Anatolian accent. Its owners, Stathis and Marianna Raissis, were children of refugees from Smyrna in the early 1920s, people who fled Turkey with only their music and their recipes to remind them of home. It’s a small place, cozy in winter with a shelf full of books and paintings by artist friends and their daughter, Ioanna, who, with her sister Konstantina, doubles as a waitress. In summer, tables, each set with fresh flowers, extend onto the square under a gauzy, candy-striped canopy.
The name means “out of the blue,” and was suggested by a friend when Stathis and Marianna decided spontaneously one day to open a restaurant 20 years ago. As Ioanna told us, “They had no experience, but because people were always gathering at the house for a meal, and as my mother is the best home cook in the world, it seemed like a good idea.” Since some of their customers date back to the beginning and newer ones keep returning, they’re obviously doing many things right.
Besides the warm welcome and homey atmosphere, there’s the food. Favorite dishes include some with exotic names like pastourmadela (exquisite tiny flutes of phyllo and pastourma) and giouslemedes (fried cheese or greens triangles), dolmadakia (stuffed vine leaves), cumin-flavored tzoutzoukakia (meatballs) with tomato sauce, fried mussels and moussaka, prepared the Asia Minor way without that thick layer of béchamel and without potatoes, but with an eggplant base that in spring is replaced with artichokes.
The menu changes with the seasons, so in summer you might find fish with okra and stuffed tomatoes but also Corfiot sofrito (sliced veal braised with garlic and parsley) or pork with ginger. “Not all our dishes are from Asia Minor; my mother’s very creative in the kitchen and Konstantina makes the sweets,” like an irresistible chocolate soufflé, espresso semifreddo with caramel, pavlova with strawberries and lemon cheesecake, to mention a few in her repertoire.
Kalakathoumena literally means “sitting well.” And this you will surely do as you savor all these delicacies.
I Kali Kardia tou Nikola is by all accounts the best meat restaurant in the Rafina area. And Nikolas Antoniadis has that jolly charm typical of so many popular butchers. What’s more, he’s been working at Kali Kardia (“Good Heart”) since he was 13 (he’s 47 now), adding his own name to it in 2010, when the former owner retired. As he says, he brings both continuity and change to the job, and although the 18 types of grilled or spitted meat are the main attraction, fish eaters and even vegetarians will hardly starve. There are lots of mezedes for nibbling before the main course, ranging from stuffed mushrooms to spicy cheese to dips and a medley of salads. In addition, the chef prepares one or two cooked entrees every day. Nikolas, the grill master, told us that his customers’ favorites are kokoretsi (spitted innards), stuffed hamburger and keftedes (fried meatballs), but our mouths started watering when he mentioned the kotsi, pork shank, for three. Alas, that’s a winter treat and will have to wait.
When we asked Nikolas why Kali Kardia tops so many friends’ lists of Rafina eateries, he smiled graciously and ticked off the reasons: good quality, polite, friendly service, good cooking and reasonable prices. But it was obvious to us that the human factor was his secret ingredient. Nikolas treats his customers like old friends and makes a point of knowing their preferences. Some have grown up with him.
Nikolas’s Kali Kardia has a cheerful main room with fireplace, a glass-fronted area for sunny winter days and a roof-covered outdoor space shaded by palm trees for summer dining. Winter Thursdays are likely to be party nights with live music.