Change may be inevitable but it’s the last thing we want in a restaurant we cherish.
We were reminded of this a few months back when by chance we were taken out to dinner at Piperiá in the Neo Psychiko neighborhood by friends who live nearby. It had been five years since we last visited the place and we were very happy to find that little had changed in the interim. What a joy it was to find the same welcoming smiles and friendly young faces; excellent but not oversolicitous service; some items on the menu that we could never resist ordering; and some new tastes that rivaled the familiar treats.
On that occasion, we sat outside. Piperiá occupies a corner that provides a patio-like seating area, and few cars pass to disturb one’s dining and conversation. Returning in early November on a weekday night, we enjoyed the openness of the high-ceilinged, glass-walled dining room and the casual atmosphere: wooden chairs and tables, simple paper placemats, unobtrusive music.
And then we studied the menu and tried to choose from among 32 starters, salads and main courses, not including the day’s specials. That was the hard part, for we were torn by having to decide between dishes we knew we loved – like calamari with pesto, perch fillets wrapped in kataifi (crisp “shredded wheat” pastry), steamed mussels with ouzo and fennel, mint-flavored keftedakia (meatballs) made with beef and pork and accompanied by a cinnamon-tomato dip – and the desire to experiment.
A few days before we had met with the owner, Yannis Galaktopoulos, to find out the story behind Piperiá. To our surprise, our rendezvous took place in another restaurant he owns just a block away. And it turns out this forty-something, very fit looking gentleman in black shirt and jeans has also opened two others, one in Anavyssos on the coast road to Sounion, the other in the eastern Attica port of Lavrio.
But we were there to talk about Piperiá, and the first thing he told us was, “I’m not a chef, just a cook.” Yannis, who originally wanted to be an architect (and in fact still harbors a dream of becoming one), only got involved in the food business after his father bought a beach resort in Glyfada, one of Athens’ southern suburbs, in 1993. It was in the resort’s restaurant that he learned his way around a kitchen.
“For me, the basic ingredient of success is the staff.”
He opened Piperiá in 2001 with a friend, the well-known chef Panagiotis Papanikolaou, who designed most of the menu. “When I bought Piperiá, which had been a café, we conceived it as a mezedopoleio [a meze restaurant], but we quickly changed the focus to seafood and fish,” he explained. “The name [which means pepper, the vegetable not the spice] already existed, and it sounds more like a meat place, but we decided to keep it, as it was becoming known.”
Yannis was pleased when we told him how happy we’d been to discover the same cheerful service and delicious dishes after a hiatus of five years.
“That shows my philosophy is paying off. For me the basic ingredient of success is the staff. They all have to understand that we are customer-oriented – their minds have to be concentrated on the customer,” he said. Of the 12 employees at Piperiá, some of them have been there almost since the beginning.
He also emphasized the importance of maintaining some continuity in the menu: “We have some standard dishes that our regular customers have come to love and expect, a balance between simple and more complex dishes, but also some variety so people don’t get bored.”
Piperiá has a summer and winter menu, with summer dishes being lighter and cooler, and those for winter being more filling, piquant and warming. Regardless of the time of year, the restaurant only uses ingredients that are in season, and their fish is sourced from two reliable suppliers in Keratsini.
Of course, the menu is not limited to fish. There are a few meat dishes for carnivores and plenty of veg, including divine salads, for herbivores. The flavors are mostly Mediterranean with some Asian touches. Highlights for us were the Thai salad with mango, Chinese cabbage and mint with a lime dressing; risotto with eggplant; kouskousaki (thicker than Moroccan couscous) with seafood; sea bass marinated in lime juice and smoked salt; and bourekakia, pastry “cigars” bursting with hot feta and herbs.
The night we dined at Piperiá, Yannis poked his head out from the kitchen to say hello. As he had told us, “If you don’t cook yourself, you have no idea what running a restaurant is like. So I’m on duty whenever our regular cook has a day off.”
After speaking with Yannis, we promised ourselves not to let five years go by before we revisit Piperiá. In fact, we picked it for a small family reunion just three days later.
With a moderately priced menu – dishes range from around €4 to €16 (for a whole fish) – generous, artistically presented portions; four super desserts plus yogurt or ice cream; a nice house wine (and an impressive but rather pricey wine list) plus several types of ouzo, beer, and tsipouro, Piperiá has held its own during Greece’s prolonged depression and has even increased its popularity.
Yannis’s recipe for success is obviously working.