The neighborhood of Exarchia in downtown Athens has long played a storied role in the social and political history of Greece. Bordering the National Technical University of Athens, also known as Athens Polytechnic, where students staged a massive uprising against the Greek military junta in 1973 that resulted in a violent repression, and the Law School of the University of Athens, it has for years attracted people with leftist political leanings, including anarchists, socialists and anti-fascists, as well as students, bohemians and artists.
Although famous for the various riots and uprisings that have taken place here throughout the years (a reputation that has often kept fearful tourists away), Exarchia has also developed a vibe and character all its own, one that’s unique amongst neighborhoods in Athens. The area is full of inexpensive eateries, small cafés and underground bars and clubs beloved by several generations of Athenians, despite their political views.
One such spot is Peinaleon, a taverna resurrected by two friends in the wake of this turbulent period that saw clashes between students, anarchists and police.
Makarios Avdeliodis never planned to join the world of food. He left the island of Chios, where his parents were mastiha (mastic) producers, at the age of 18 to study engineering in Athens. Three years later, just as he was about to graduate, his life took an unexpected turn: Vassilis Tsipidis, a friend of Makarios’ brother, Dimos, now a successful director, convinced him to open a taverna together in an old neoclassical building on Mavromichali Street.
Formerly a typical old Athenian house with a small courtyard, the building housed the Union of Greek Actors during the military dictatorship (1967-1974). In 1975, the union headquarters gave way to a taverna named Peinaleon, which quickly became a haunt for leftist groups. But it shut down after a couple of years and remained closed until Makarios and Vassilis took over in 1978. They kept the name Peinaleon (Πειναλέων, which combines πέινα, or “hunger,” and λέων, or “lion”), one of the characters of the well-known post-war Greek political cartoonist Chrysanthos Mentis Bostantzoglou, whose pen name was Bost (Μποστ).
After they renovated the place, their close friend Stella Tsakiri, a student at the Athens School of Fine Arts and a talented cook with some previous restaurant experience, stepped in for a couple of months to help them organize the kitchen. After learning all he could from Stella and consulting his mother for her tips and island traditions, Makarios began running the show, including doing all the cooking.
The place quickly became a local hangout for intellectuals and artists living in the neighborhood, thanks in large part to Vassilis and Dimos, Makarios’ brother, who were both young actors at the time. People gathered at the taverna not only to eat but also to meet up, engage in long conversations and play music – impromptu live music performances are still a common sight today.
In 1980, Makarios and Vassilis ended their partnership on good terms: Makarios kept the taverna while Vassilis opened a bar nearby.
The menu was initially quite large, with about 40 main dishes served daily. But after the most recent economic recession, Makarios whittled down the offerings, focusing on fewer dishes while keeping the quality high.
Today the menu is mostly focused on the cuisine and products of Chios.
Today the menu, which Makarios designs himself, is mostly focused on the cuisine and products of Chios. There’s grilled mastelo, a flavorful, chewy cheese from Chios made with cow’s milk and ideal for grilling, served with oxymelo sauce, a mixture of vinegar and honey that has roots in ancient Greece. His take on fava (the traditional Greek creamy split peas) with turmeric, chopped onions, capers and plenty of lemon juice is particularly good. The fennel fritters – a recipe from his mother – are also a big hit, and if you are a fan of eggplant, try the starter of baked eggplant with tomato sauce and crumbled feta, or the veal stew in tomato sauce served on eggplant puree, one of the taverna’s mains.
His signature dish is the pork stew with mastiha served over mashed potatoes – a recipe of his own made with slow cooked pork, pure mastiha “tears” (the drops of mastic resin that fall from the trees), fennel bulbs and greens, peppers, star anise and pink “peppercorn” (a dried berry that in fact has nothing to do with the peppercorn family but has a mild peppery flavor, pairs perfectly with mastiha and is typically used in Chios cuisine).
The roast duck with the sweet wine and orange sauce is another crowd favorite, but if you want something larger to share, we recommend Makarios’ pork shank. Slow baked, caramelized on the outside and as tender as can be, the large pork shank is served with a red wine sauce and surrounded by hand-cut crispy fried potatoes.
The bread he serves is excellent and necessary for sopping up all those delicious sauces. The four types of bread – rye, multigrain seed, whole-wheat and carob – are all made with a traditional sour starter and baked in a wood-fired oven at Papageorgiou Bakery on Evia (Euboea) Island, which then delivers the final product daily.
The desserts are always on the house, either their usual semolina halva or, on special occasions, their layered kataifi (shredded pastry that looks like vermicelli) cake topped with vanilla cream, cocoa powder and desiccated coconut.
They only serve house wine made by a small producer, but they offer a wide range of ouzo and tsipouro from Chios.
The space still looks like a house, welcoming and cozy with a fireplace that burns throughout the winter. The walls are decorated with theater and film posters, many of which are works of his brother, Dimos, who recently received the Karolos Koun Theatre Award for Best Director. Makarios likes to support artists; he welcomes them with respect and offers them discounts when they can’t afford their dinner. And every Wednesday and Friday night a group of friends plays live Greek music, especially the beautiful, nostalgic songs of Hatzidakis and Theodorakis.
Since there is not enough outdoor space for tables, Makarios shuts the taverna during the summer months, between June and early September. He used to spend his summers in Chios helping his parents in the fields collecting mastiha tears, but since they passed away he goes to the nearby, more remote island of Psara where he eats well, breathes fresh air and recharges his batteries for the winter to come.