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Through the gate on Kallidromiou and down the steps, the enchanting stone-paved courtyard at last reveals itself, a hidden oasis of fragrant lemon trees, geraniums, bougainvillea and jasmine in the densely built neighborhood of Exarchia.

A charming mural of children in class is painted on one side of the yard, right next to the water fountains that thirsty students used to run to during their break. Inside, walls are decorated with old black-and-white photos from the school’s archives.

A modern mezedopoleio housed in a historical neoclassical building, Ama Lachi stis Nefelis (If by Chance at Nefeli’s) holds the unusual distinction of being the former public primary school of Exarchia.

The school was shuttered in the early 1980s, and a few years later it was turned into a traditional taverna called Ama Lachi. In January 2014, the place was renovated and reopened under new ownership, with two separate restaurants named after the owner’s daughters (the other, Ama Lachi stis Violette, is a French bistro) that coexist peacefully side by side.

Ama Lachi stis Nefelis, photo by Carolina Doriti

Children still sit at the tables at Ama Lachi stis Nefelis, but nowadays, they’re joined by their families. The crowd is usually young here and includes intellectuals, university students, hipsters and couples, all enjoying the casual, vibrant atmosphere.

For those who need a little pick-me-up before lunch, the restaurant opens most days at 11 a.m. to serve coffee and sweets, like warm walnut pie with caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream. The kitchen really gets going at 1 p.m., turning out traditional Greek dishes with a modern slant, such as baked chickpeas with smoked pork and horta (wild greens) and pureed fava (yellow split peas) with fennel root and mixed nuts. We recommend the smoked eggplant with Cretan galotyri cheese and grilled pita bread, the mizithropitakia (Cretan-style mini pies with mizithra cheese, honey, mint and sesame seeds), the selection of traditional sausages from around Greece and the grilled talagani cheese served with tomato marmalade. We also love the fried meatballs with ouzo and fresh mint served with yogurt on the side and the delightfully crispy, hand-cut fried potatoes.

Ekmek kataifi at Ama Lachi stis Nefelis, photo by Carolina Doriti

There’s a great selection of house and bottled wine, tsipouro from Tyrnavos, tsikoudia from Crete, ouzo from Lesvos and beers from all over Greece to enjoy along with your meal. As far as desserts go, we’ve got two favorites: sour cherry semifreddo topped with a seasonal fruit salad and mastiha (mastic) syrup and then the ekmek kataifi with mastiha cream and whipped cream on top.

The tables in the yard are first come, first served, but reservations can be made for the tables inside. Evenings are generally busy from 9 p.m. onwards, and Sundays during lunchtime are crowded too. Service is not the speediest, but the waiters are kind and cheerful, so they can easily get away with it. But there’s no need to rush through the food and drink here – this is a classroom meant for lingering.

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