Kapnikarea, a tiny music café-restaurant, takes its name from the Byzantine church nearby in the middle of Ermou Street. The street, dedicated to Hermes – a god of many attributes, including trade, thievery and smooth talking – and thronged with tourists and shoppers day and night, is an unlikely location for this unusual eatery. You might expect it in neighborhoods like Psyrri or Exarchia, where the eccentric is commonplace, but not opposite H&M and in the same zone as Zara and Marks & Spencer.
In all fairness, Kapnikarea was there first. And when it opened in 1977, it was an avant-garde sandwich shop, a pioneer in the land of souvlaki and spanakopita. This version of fast food barely existed back then although it caught on fast. Nineteen years later, Dimitris Sofos took over the shop from his father and completely transformed it. A sound engineer by profession with lots of experience in radio and sound studios, he dreamed of combining his two hobbies: music and cooking.
The result is a place where you can listen to live rebetika music – often referred to as the Greek version of American blues – all day while sipping a coffee or a beer, or enjoying a meal ranging from breakfast to nibbles to a full-course lunch or dinner. Instead of starting late at night, the musicians begin to play around 2:30 p.m., and the menu reflects Dimitri’s passion for travel. It also reflects his concern for those with flat wallets: “I don’t want people to think they have to spend a lot to sit and enjoy themselves.”
Dimitris, known to his friends as Mitsos, began cooking as a child, experimenting and learning from his grandmother, a native of the island of Ikaria, whose meatballs are one of the few dishes that haven’t changed since he opened. The others are his thinly cut grilled pork chops and to Egyptiako, a mix of pastourma, tomato, egg, feta and melted cheese inspired by a treat that caught his fancy in Egypt 22 years ago. Other dishes feature spices like ginger, cumin and hot pepper that show an Indian influence, along with Greek egg-lemon and tomato sauces for lamb, burgers or vegetables.
On our first visit there, it was Lent and some of us were abstaining from eating meat so we feasted on a delectable taramasalata (fish roe dip), fava, mussels in mustard sauce, tiny shrimps with hot pepper, and bruschetta, while making an exception so we could sample those luscious minty meatballs. More recently, when passing by we were treated to bouyourdi, a creamy baked feta, tomato and more hot pepper; a dakos (rusk) salad with crumbled feta that tasted like fresh cheese; and mackerel baked with onions, tomatoes and green peppers (a special order).
All the cooking is a magic act conducted behind a display case that separates the tables from the kitchen, which is no larger than something you might find on a small sailing yacht. Being a narrow six feet long, it can barely fit two people and possesses just two burners, a tiny grill, a fryer and an oven. “I wanted it that way,” said Mitsos, “I had an architect friend design it and everything is within reach. No time wasted moving around.”
But what really sets this little café apart is its music. With the recent sad demise of Rebetiki Istoria, an Athens institution, there are few places where you can listen to this quintessential Greek genre. And there are none where you can listen to live musicians while the sun is still up.
Rebetika refers to songs, usually laments, accompanied by the familiar jingle jangle of a bouzouki, its smaller version called the baglama, and guitar. This type of music was born in the underworld – think amateur jam sessions in hash dens and prisons – of the port cities of Piraeus and Thessaloniki in the early 20th century. Before that, though, professional Greek musicians were entertaining the public on their violins, mandolins, guitars, lyras (lyres) and sandouris (hammered dulcimers) in nightclubs and cafés in the Greek neighborhoods of Constantinople (Istanbul) and Smyrna (Izmir). The two “schools” were to meet after the Asia Minor Catastrophe when more than 1.5 million refugees of Greek descent were sent “home” in the Population Exchange of 1923, in which some 500,000 Muslims were returned to Turkey. Nationality was decided on the basis of religion.
The arrival of these desperate people in a country so poor that many were routinely forced to emigrate to a third country placed tremendous burdens on the society and infrastructure where the newcomers were settled. But the Asia Minor Greeks, though often living in slums, had brought with them their music (sometimes called café-aman music) and their recipes, and both were to have an impact.
But like the blues, rebetika quickly escaped the underworld and went underground before erupting into the mainstream.
Inevitably, their lives and their songs – of longing (for a lost love or homeland), despair, poverty, drugs and more – mingled with those of the natives and a new art form was born. Both the refugees and the somewhat louche underworld figures of the ports belonged to marginalized groups. They were people on the fringes who could not aspire to inclusion, like the Blacks of the American South. But like the blues, rebetika quickly went from underground to mainstream. As we know, nothing appeals to some factions of “respectable” society more than what’s considered risqué or provocative.
And so rebetika came to be heard more and more often in Athens and gave birth to some of the country’s most famous Greek performer/composers like Vasilis Tsitsanis and Markos Vamvakaris in the 1930s and influenced scores more, like Theodorakis, Hatzidakis, Dalaras, Savvopoulos. It was at its most popular and innovative in the 30s, 40s and 50s, managing to survive the censorship of the Metaxas Dictatorship (1936-1941) and the Nazi Occupation, as well as the Junta (1967-74), which being very prudish outlawed it. The post-Junta years saw rebetika become more popular and mainstream, to the point that it became synonymous with Greek music.
Nowadays, rebetika takes many forms and who’s to say what’s authentic or correct? Styles change and so do lyrics, but at Kapnikarea you can hear all sorts. So every Monday Mitsos invites a different group to play. By now his place is so known that musicians seek him out and vice versa, and he also likes to introduce variations, a rebetika version of a Karaghiozis shadow play, or a fairy tale about Dionysos, or even “Surf-betika” from LA! There’s nisiotiko (island style), swing and rockabilly, too, which might offend purists, but that’s their problem.
When you visit, take a few minutes to have a look at the funky inner room (the musicians play in a covered sidewalk extension where there are tables too). It’s a mini-museum. Against the turquoise walls you’ll find photos of instruments with descriptions and the instruments themselves, colored lamps from India, memorabilia from other travels – entertainment for the eye as well as the ear.
We asked a couple of fellow diners, “Do you come here for the food or the music?”
“Oh, both,” they said in unison. “It’s a very happy balance.”