With the banks closed for almost two weeks and Greece’s position in the eurozone the subject of heated debate and endless negotiations for the past several months, we wondered how some of our favorite restaurants were coping. Greeks had voted NO to austerity the previous Sunday (July 5), but did this mean they were spending their spare cash on staples for harder times and going out only to take part in demonstrations or stand in ATM queues?
To take the pulse of the situation, we went to the heart of the food district on the evening of Friday, July 10, starting at Agia Irini Square, where three of the places CB has covered stand within a few blocks of each other. Although it was only 6 p.m., early for dinner, a surprising number of tables were occupied at both Manas Kouzina Kouzina and Mama Roux. With the owner at Manas absent, we had a quick word with Vassilis, the waiter in charge.
“We’re doing okay. People still come out to eat, to drink. Perhaps they’re a bit more restrained than in the past. But we haven’t had to fire anyone so far. Let’s wait and see what happens on Sunday” [when the Eurogroup was going to meet to decide whether Greece’s fate lay in or outside the eurozone].
While waiting for Mama Roux’s owner to finish up some business, we snatched an even quicker word with the guys at Falafellas, the falafel takeout joint on the other side of Aiolou Street. The line, which can stretch around the block, consisted of a mere three to four people, but customers kept coming. Said one of the cooks as he folded a big pita around a luscious looking filling, “No, the crisis hasn’t hit us at all. If we have shorter lines, it’s because of the heat.” At €2.50 for a pocket-sized falafel, €3.50 for a giant one, there’s every reason why they’ll be even more popular in the future.
John Higgins gave us a more nuanced view of how the ongoing epic drama has affected Mama Roux, where Jimmy Smith’s organ renditions of blues and jazz were creating a NOLA atmosphere and happy hour cocktails were on offer at €5 apiece, along with two beers for the price of one.
“We were managing well enough until the referendum was called. Then the banks shut and things went precipitously downhill. The market’s been very moody. Our sales follow the news and the swings between optimism and pessimism, but they’re mysterious and unpredictable. Sometimes the place is empty because of a rally; the next night it might be full even though there’s another one.
“Everyone here is hugely affected by the prospect of Grexit, and the possibility that we might have to close is very chilling. We tend to sublimate by becoming numb, but we’re all exhausted by this roller coaster of extreme ups and downs, and when I get home I find myself wanting to play nothing but gospel songs on the piano. They’re so full of the pain of life and redemption, about processing both pain and hope, and rising above it all.
“You ask about supplies. No problems as yet, but this depression has revealed just how expensive Greek products are as opposed to imported. And a shockingly small amount of food is actually produced here. In any case, we’ll close in August for two to three weeks and hope for the best. The whole crisis has been corrosive, but these last two weeks have been the coup de grace.”
Around 8 p.m., we took our leave and headed for Evripidou Street and the delicatessen/restaurant Ta Karamanlidika tou Fani. We’d gone to a street party in May in celebration of their first anniversary, where crowds nibbled sausages and pastourma, downed plastic cups of wine or beer and danced in the street to live music. After Fanis Arapian launched the eatery on the corner opposite his family’s tiny but well-stocked shop specializing in preserved meats and cheeses from Northern Greece, it quickly became one of the most popular places in the food district, crowded day and night.
On Friday evening, it was doing a brisk business and even had two rows of tables in an alley behind the restaurant proper that we hadn’t noticed on earlier visits. They were full too, but Fanis said, “The Greeks have vanished,” and, indeed, all the customers out back were Asian. Fanis was worried but not desperate yet. After all, his own family, refugees from Armenia, started up their shop in 1922, and Sary, the enterprise that processes the meats up north, has been in operation since 1890. “Everything will depend on what happens on Sunday,” he warned as we said goodbye.
Our next stop, the Gastronomy Museum, was just a couple of blocks away, and they too were celebrating their first anniversary, with a cocktail party in the courtyard of the church next door. The €20 admission fee would go toward the creation of a vegetable garden on the church grounds, a project that reveals both a commitment to the future and a flexible, innovative way of approaching it.
Before joining the guests for a glass of wine and some elegant nibbles, we took a look round the new exhibition, entitled #ReflectionOfThePlate. Works by 12 contemporary Greek artists having to do with eating or food included such startling arrangements as slabs of salt cod dangling from what looked like a hospital hook for an intravenous drip above a mound of coarse sea salt, a pewter punch bowl studded with dozens of cups, and our favorite, a map of the Aegean Sea made of baklava, with the islands visible as gaps in the pastry. We took note of the pretty shop with oven mitts, colorful aprons, jars of preserves and special wines and stepped out into the courtyard. The bar set up in front of the church looked completely natural and a happy buzz of “yia sou”s and “how are you”s drowned out the music as friends recognized each other.
When we asked Konstantinos Matsourdelis, the museum’s founder, about future prospects, he shrugged and said, “We will keep going. There is no other option.”
Besides offering generous discounts in their secluded courtyard restaurant, the museum also gives cooking lessons, tours of the Central Market and special kitchen sessions with some of the artists, who have also designed dishes specially for the exhibition (go to the museum restaurant’s website and click on the menu to see their eclectic, eccentric, delicious-sounding inventions).
Reluctantly, we dragged ourselves away about an hour before midnight and walked through the crowded streets of Psyri, where every taverna and café seemed filled to bursting, and entered Plateia Avissinias from Ermou. Here, the alleys were deserted, the shops tightly shuttered, and all the furniture and bric-a-brac normally strewn all over the square had vanished as if by magic. Even Café Avissinia was empty apart from Nikolas Koufonikolas, the owner, and Diana, the waitress on duty, and a couple paying their bill, Canadians enthusing about the food and the view.
We climbed up the two flights of stairs to see for ourselves and lo and behold, the terrace had but two empty tables and the radiant Acropolis looked close enough to touch. It was also comforting. It has survived times of hardship and crisis before. Surely Athens and Greece will weather this latest tempest.
Back down in Monastiraki Square, the scene was vibrant as usual. The whole square was rocking to throbbing bongo drums, a bunch of young men were entertaining onlookers with breakdancing exploits, some couples were locked in long embraces and a homeless elderly man was lying fast asleep on the lowest step of the wooden ziggurat in the northwest corner of the square. We went home convinced that nothing would subdue these young Athenians; their energy and vitality would keep rising to the surface, finding ways to express themselves.
Meanwhile, Sunday’s deal looks hard to swallow, and Monday’s reaction puts the government at risk. The roller coaster ride seems set to continue. But one thing is certain: You can help keep our favorite places in business by stopping by to have a meal.
(photos by Diana Farr Louis)