Surely Plateia Viktorias is one of the last places you’d look if you wanted to find a typical seaside taverna. The square, once a meeting place for Patission Avenue’s haute bourgeoisie in the first half of the 20th century, was filled with refugee tents and sleeping bags just a few years ago. Today it still boasts the city’s largest concentration of refugee help centers, and women with head scarves push prams through it, while Syrian and Afghan lads lounge on its ledges playing with their cell phones.
We first noticed the eatery, at the very end of a two-block pedestrianized street called Hope (Elpidos), while on our way to lunch at the Victoria Art Project, an initiative born during last summer’s Documenta 14 art festival to foster creativity in the neighborhood. But we forgot to ask whether they are responsible for the elegant paintings on the street’s walls: the one of a soldier with sword and red-robed damsel is unlike anything we’ve seen in graffiti-covered downtown.
On that cool March day, the taverna didn’t look very inviting. The word “Ouzeri” in big red letters above a simple pair of aluminum-framed windows with the words (in Greek) fish/mezedes, seafood/variety in blue on either side, didn’t say much. And we weren’t sufficiently intrigued to peer inside, despite the caique rudder positioned invitingly across the left window.
However, a friend’s daughter recommended it, then more friends who dine there before going to a nearby theater sang its praises, so our curiosity was piqued, and rewarded.
Stepping into this simple, one-room taverna was like stepping into almost any fish place on the Aegean coast. To one’s right is a display case brimming with bright-eyed fish of many types and sizes, while nautical motifs prevail on the pale blue walls: model caiques, sea shells, brass dolphins, propellers, and a life ring, under which is written, “All the world is a madhouse but this is the headquarters.” Even the ceiling lamps have a maritime flair: glass bottoms that resemble exotic clams with masts from which sails furl.
Moreover, one of the walls is papered with clippings of rave reviews from Greek and international papers, including The New York Times. It appears as if the taverna is a common secret.
Stepping into this simple, one-room taverna was like stepping into almost any fish place on the Aegean coast.
It’s only when you sit down at one of the 14 tables and look at the menu that you realize the place has a name, Tou Laki, or Laki’s ouzeri. Giorgos, who tends the till, tells us that Lakis Lambrou was his father and he’d had a shop selling automobile spare parts, batteries and spark plugs, until he had the unlikely idea to open a fish restaurant in the heart of Athens in 1984.
Lakis has since passed on, but Giorgos and his wife, Anna, haven’t changed anything. The menu depends on the catch of the day, which arrives from Kymi on the east coast of Evia and Skyros, opposite it, by noon. And the menu takes quite a while to digest because it runs to several pages and everything sounds tempting.
Apart from whatever fresh fish beckon from their icy bed, you can choose from a wide range of salads and mezedes. To satisfy as many of our urges as possible, the first time we dined there we chose a fixed price (30 euros) combo that included a platter of boiled greens, fried baby squid, anchovies sofrito, chickpea fritters, and potato salad with anchovies (known as mezes tou Laki). Each dish was delectable but the portions were so generous that half of the meal came home with us.
At lunch a month later, while dining with a different companion, we felt irresistibly curious about the sardine moussaka, another invention of Laki’s. We also ordered crisp batter-fried skate with garlic sauce, perfectly grilled mackerel, and another boiled salad, since the appetizing-sounding house salad with lettuce, smoked tuna, caper leaves, raisins and balsamic cream was not available. While we devoured the skate and mackerel, the moussaka was not something we would order again. The sardines were just fine and, fortunately, the eggplant/potato base lacked a bechamel topping, but the overall combination and the hollowed bread “packet” it came in were innovative but not inspirational.
That said, we still have to try the mackerel with caramelized onions and tomato sauce and the cuttlefish with pasta cooked in its ink, just to name a couple of the other inventions listed.
And we feel we will return often, whenever we have a craving for the sea but are unable to get there. The house white is more than pleasant, beer drinkers will find two Greek microbreweries among the better-known big names, and there are 16 brands of ouzo to choose from. More important, Giorgos and Anna are so warm and welcoming that after just two visits, we felt like old friends (and so, we observed, did the rest of the clientele, who all seemed to be regulars). And on a warm summer evening, you can sit at tables outside on the sidewalk, for Elpidos Street has no cars to bother you.
There won’t be a sea breeze, but that will be all that’s missing.