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Introduced during Ottoman times, the kafeneion – the old-fashioned kind of coffee house – has long been a fixture in Greece. By 1860, Athens already had more than 100 establishments that were serving what has been called both Greek coffee and Turkish coffee (name debates aside, we can all agree that it’s more or less the same thing, a small cup of strong coffee with a thick sludge at the bottom).

They were (and still are) the domain of men, who would congregate there to talk politics and socialize over coffee as well as more substantial fare, usually simple meze and ouzo or tsipouro. Although the traditional Greek kafeneion still exists in many Athenian neighborhoods, it’s slowly dying out.

Sure, we could blame their demise on the rise of hipster coffee shops with cold-brewed single-origin coffee and gluten-free desserts. But the underlying issue is that old-school coffee houses don’t appeal to a wide base – young people, women in particular, are not as interested in frequenting run-down establishments where old men can smoke freely and play cards or watch games all night.

That’s why Agriolouloudo (which means “wild flower” in Greek), a tiny family-run kafeneion in Zografou, a neighborhood popular with students, is so special. It has managed to keep its traditional character while bridging the age gap, making the coffee house accessible to everyone: men, women, families of all ages and styles, and even espresso drinkers.

Nikos Kakarantzoulas had been working at the coffee house and eventually bought it from the previous owner in 1999. The heart and soul of this place, however, is Despoina, his wife. An excellent cook, she used to work for the Nomikos family, Greek shipping magnates based in London, and later for the U.S. Embassy in Athens before starting at the kafeneion. She still prepares everything served here, albeit from the comfort of her home (as the kafeneion’s kitchen is tiny), and does the main food shop at the farmer’s market.

It has managed to keep its traditional character while bridging the age gap, making the coffee house accessible to everyone.

Their children, Penelope and Thomas, breathed new life into the place. “I began helping at the kafeneion right after finishing high school in 2002,” Penelope tells us. “This is when my friends gradually started visiting the coffee shop. At first, the older clients didn’t like the new generation. They were afraid that the place would change into something they couldn’t relate to.”

Their fears were unfounded. Fast-forward 18 years, and Agriolouloudo has become somewhat of a community hub. “We celebrate many birthdays here, all national holidays and special days like Tsiknopempti [the Thursday during Carnival time when large amounts of grilled meat are traditionally consumed],” Penelope says. “We also have established our own special days, like ‘corn day,’ which happens once new corn appears on the market, around the end of June or beginning of July.”

Penelope studied graphic design, but the coffee shop stole her heart. Every day, without fail, she shares the afternoon and evening shifts with her brother, Thomas. “Even when it’s my day off, I will call and check that everything is running smoothly!” she says.

It is her father, however, who always opens at 6 a.m. “We open early to serve the people waiting at the bus stop or going to work at the nearby supermarkets, plus all the doctors and clients from the IKA/EOPYY [Greek National Social Insurance Institute] next door. Until lunchtime it is mainly the 50-70 year olds who hang out here. For lunch we get a mixed bunch – students, doctors, locals, workers, tourists, everyone,” she explains.

In the evening the clientele is also diverse, and we get the feeling that the small café is an extension of people’s living rooms, with everyone talking animatedly (even if they don’t know each other that well) and Penelope running around serving drinks and food, smiling and making chit-chat like a good hostess. It’s easy to show up alone, as there will always be someone to talk to.

On the nights when there’s a big match, a huge cinema-quality projector is set up outside on the sidewalk, and the clients are mostly male. “We never miss a game,” Penelope says. “The sidewalk is filled with tables, and it is always great fun. Every Sunday, without exception, we also show Moto GP [Grand Prix motorcycle racing].”

While the various games and celebrations are certainly a huge draw, eating and drinking at Agriolouloudo is itself a great pleasure. Although all the food is very Greek, we haven’t seen the style of serving it – on top of small slices of bread, similar to tapas – anywhere else. “I think my parents copied that from all the canapés they were serving at the Embassy, but I can’t be sure,” Penelope explains.

Every day different goodies appear on the “menu,” a mix-and-match of cold and warm dishes, cheeses (graviera) and cold cuts (pastourma, smoked pork), spreads (tuna, sun-dried tomato), pies (spinach, cheese), fritters (zucchini with feta and in the summer zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese, and tomato fitters), sausages (spetzofai, sausage cooked with green peppers and chile), cooked meats, you name it. The strangest of all (and everyone’s favorite) is boiled brussels sprouts. The way to order is by asking for meze or poikilia (which means variety in Greek), and you’ll get a mixed plate with that day’s offerings.

Prices are extremely low for the quality, and everything is always seasonal. “We don’t serve spinach pie in the summer or cucumber in the winter! We try to source our ingredients from reputable vendors at the market, from good delicatessens or from our place of origin, Evrytania [a mountainous region in central Greece],” Penelope tells us.

It’s nothing revolutionary, but the delicious, affordable food and friendly atmosphere have made Agriolouloudo a kafeneion for all ages – and genders.

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Published on February 25, 2020

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