At first glance, Manolis, located in a quiet, residential corner of Chalandri, a neighborhood far from the bustling center of Athens, looks like your typical Greek family taverna: the large dining room is clad in wood paneling and brick, with various old-fashioned paintings, drawings and old photographs covering the walls.
But if you look a little closer, the slogan written on the blackboard over the bar – “1977 was the year that Taverna O Manolis and punk rock appeared in the world” – hints at the restaurant’s penchant for music. In fact, the ties between Manolis and the music world are so strong that some of world’s top musicians including Nick Cave, the band Depeche Mode and Moby have eaten at this family-run spot. How many tavernas in Greece can boast that?
The reason for this close connection is Giorgos Geranios; his mother, Spyridoula, is not just the owner of Manolis, but also its heart and soul. Giorgos is the proud owner of the London-based indie music label UNDO Records (his business partner moved to London to run the company) and a photographer who mainly shoots music album covers. But when he’s not pursuing his musical passions, he’s helping out at the taverna, shopping for meat and doing anything else that needs to be done.
“This place is my home,” he admitted, explaining that, although he had offers, he couldn’t leave Greece to go and work in a foreign country like two of his three brothers did. “I am a bit of a mama’s boy and I cannot imagine my life away from the taverna or my country,” he said.
The family’s devotion to their craft is what sets Manolis apart from similar eateries. Spyridoula and Manolis, her husband and the restaurant’s namesake, still do all the cooking themselves: Spyridoula prepares the cooked dishes and Manolis does the grilling. “I only hire help during the weekend, and the girls just do the prep and slice potatoes. The cooking is my responsibility,” she told us sternly.
Many of her dishes are rooted in the culinary traditions of Asia Minor, like the impossibly tender and almost sweet imam eggplants (stuffed eggplants similar to the Turkish dish of imam bayıldı).“My family comes from Asia Minor, Çeşme in Izmir to be exact,” she explained. “In 1922, we were first sent to Thessaloniki and then to Gastouni in the Peloponnese. However, we spoke Turkish at home so I know the language well, although I was born and raised in Greece.”
She eventually made her way to Athens and first opened a small shop at this same exact spot in 1977, selling souvlaki and beer to construction workers who were building the neighborhood. Back then Chalandri was essentially one massive construction site, with large blocks of flats filling the formerly empty fields; many of these buildings are still standing.
“I am a bit of a mama’s boy and I cannot imagine my life away from the taverna or my country.”
Business grew quickly, so in a slight role reversal, Spyridoula hired her husband, who had been working as a waiter at another place in Chalandri, to come help her. They gradually began adding more items to the menu, and the burgeoning restaurant became a favorite spot for families.
Manolis became known as a grill master, a title he still bears. In addition to the grilling, he also does all the vegetable shopping for the taverna. “He goes to the nearby markets almost daily,” Giorgos told us, “and he is very picky.”
The same customers keep coming back to the taverna, especially on the weekends. Some of these regulars even have tables named after them. “People come here not only for the food, but also because they feel at home. Sometimes, when we are busy, they also serve themselves, a sign that they feel comfortable,” said Giorgos. Although lunch is usually slow during the week, they still draw in some nearby office workers. “We don’t do food delivery, so they have to come to us!” exclaimed Spyridoula.
While the atmosphere can be lively on the weekends, food is the main reason to visit Manolis, and it is truly excellent. The menu is small and consists of fresh fish and seafood (whatever is available that day), either grilled or fried, grilled meats, meze, salads and a few cooked dishes. The fish comes from Chalcis, a town on the island of Evia (Euboea), but the fresh calamari is sourced from a famous fish shop called Stavrodromi in Gerakas, a suburb of Athens. Giorgos explained that the shop has large machines – similar to washing machines – where they put the calamari to tumble for a while and soften, giving the fried verions of the dish at Manolis a silky as opposed to a rubbery texture.
Spyridoula makes excellent pies too, with handmade phyllo pastry; the fries are also hand cut and made to order. We were lucky on our most recent visit to try her famous stuffed cabbage leaves that are served not with the usual egg and lemon sauce, but with a lighter, eggless version. “I don’t use eggs in my cooking,” Spyridoula told us, “because it makes the drinking glasses smell!”
The fish soup was magnificent, with large pieces of succulent fish and vegetables. The highlight, however, was the biftekia, grilled beef patties that are kneaded without the usual great amounts of bread, garlic and onion – only salt, pepper, oregano, olive oil and tomatoes go into them, and a slice of bread for every kilo of meat. As a result, the quality of the meat is important, and they buy it from a local butcher nearby. “It costs about 30 percent more than if we bought it from the central market, but we like to keep our quality standards high and help neighborhood businesses at the same time,” said Giorgos.
Prices are very reasonable, especially for the quality offered and the large portions, about €16 per person. Bookings are essential on Saturdays and Sundays, but Giorgos warned us that on Sundays, “it is pure mayhem!” Sounds very punk to us.