The geography of Lavrion, a seaside town located in southeast Attica, about a 45-minute drive from downtown Athens, has played a big role in shaping its population.
The most important factor is Lavrion’s proximity to the sea. With an abundance of fish and seafood at its doorstep, as well as a marina and port, it’s no wonder that a large portion of the town’s population are fishermen.
Perhaps not as obvious, considering it’s more concealed nature, is Lavrion’s mining industry. Since before 3,000 B.C., the area was famed for its silver and lead mines. Although abandoned in the 2nd century B.C., the mines were re-opened in 1864, attracting a large number of miners who eventually settled in the town.
Born and raised in Lavrion and now the owner of Taverna tou Veletakou, Yiannis Veletakos has experience both underground and on the sea. He started working at the local mines when he was 16, but the sea had always been his great love and fishing his therapy. “I prefer to go out fishing on my own, where it will be just me, the sea and God, piece of mind and clarity of thought,” he tells us during a recent visit.
He built his first fishing boat with his own hands using broken parts he found at the mines and with this he started fishing professionally. Until 1977, he was working two full-time jobs. During the day he toiled away in the mines and during most nights or on weekends he went fishing in his boat. Like the other local fishermen, he sold the fish he caught at the port of Lavrion.
Mr. Yiannis is an elderly gentleman, and like many Greeks his age, he loves telling stories. His stories, particularly of his time on the sea, are vivid and take you back in time. As he tells us about his past, he recounts the time, back in 1977, that he caught a shark, right outside the port of Lavrion. “Sharks are not commonly found much in this area but that one must have followed a boat,” he explains. “I knew there had to be a shark nearby as I found half eaten fish in the area. I went out to get him but I didn’t really believe I would.” Whether down to luck or skill, he caught that shark and became a local hero, with the newspaper cutouts and photos to prove it.
“I prefer to go out fishing on my own, where it will be just me, the sea and God.”
After sharing that proud moment, he weaves back to the task at hand, describing how the fishermen in the area used to gather in a small basement almost daily. There, the men brought some of the fish they caught to cook and share with their comrades. Known as the fishermen’s taverna, it was definitely a bit of a boy’s club.
In 1970, the taverna’s original owner decided to sell it. Mr. Yiannis, who loved the place so much and disliked the idea of losing this special fishermen’s joint, decided to take it over. He started running the basement taverna with his wife, Despina, a magnificent person and fantastic cook. A former seamstress, Despina became the soul of the kitchen and the taverna, filling everyone with tasty food and lots of love. Mr. Yiannis went fishing and she took care of his catch in the best possible way. The taverna began attracting people outside of the fishing community, and soon Athenians were driving all the way to Lavrion to enjoy the freshest fish at this underground spot.
As their popularity grew, Mr. Yiannis lost his day job at the mines, receiving a good payout. He built a new fishing boat that was twice the size of his first one and decided to move the taverna to a new location that was also much larger in size, aboveground with a courtyard across the street and, most importantly, right next door to their family home.
Christened Taverna tou Veletakou, the restaurant became a family affair. When we praise Despina for her delicious food, she modestly remarks, “I don’t do anything special, I just cook everything the way I’ve always cooked for my own children and now grandchildren.” Their menu is simple, so simple that you really can’t go wrong, especially considering the quality of the ingredients they use. Apart from the fresh seafood brought in primarily by Mr. Yiannis, the produce they use is always bought fresh from the local farmer’s market.
The handmade dips, like the eggplant dip or taramosalata (fish roe dip), are exquisite, and the salads are fresh and tasty, dressed in extra virgin olive oil. The fish and seafood on offer really depends on the day’s catch and the season, but undoubtedly you’re getting the best bargains here considering Mr. Yannis’s connections to the local fishing scene.
In our minds, the best way to judge a fish taverna in Greece is to try their fried dishes. To be able to control the frying so that the end result is both crispy and moist without feeling oily usually requires masterful skills, ones which are rarely encountered in simple family tavernas. Here we can honestly say that we ate the best fried seafood we have ever tasted. Try the fried calamari, anchovies and red mullet, seasoned with just salt and freshly squeezed lemon juice. Crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside, they arrive on the table with the taste and aromas of the sea still intact. As for sides, the fried zucchini and hand-cut potatoes are equally perfect (even if Mr. Yiannis didn’t catch them).
Their son Dimitris helps out in the front of the house. He’s always polite, generous and smiling, just like his mother. Don’t expect the service to be fast, as this is a family place where everything is prepared on the spot for you. Plus, the taverna is always busy anyway, so go there relaxed and take your time to enjoy the meal. While the portions are very generous, we still encourage you to order as much as you can because everything is just that delicious.
And if you go on Saturday nights, Dimitris, who is also a professional musician, will often pick up his guitar after the dinner rush and, together with his friends, play and sing old Greek songs that pair perfectly with wine or tsipouro. Just like the food here, this is too good to be missed.