This is a story that starts and ends with the land. First there was the father, Spyros Vracha, a farmer who owned fields nearby Chalandri, now a middle-class suburb around 8 km north of downtown Athens. His crops supplied the kitchens of the tavernas in the area, which until the 1980s was dotted with villas, rather than the apartment blocks of today.
Before it closed down almost 30 years ago, Ta Marmara (“The Marbles,” so called because of Chalandri’s many marble suppliers and workshops) was one of the tavernas that Spyros supplied. It was owned by Stavros and Athena, Spyros’ neighbors.
Then came the son – Spyros’ boy, Nikos. Thanks to his father, he met Mary, the daughter of Stavros and Athena, and the two of them fell in love and got married. But not long after, in April 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster shook the world. With a pall cast over the future, Spyros came to the conclusion that he wanted to get away from farming. It was time to change course.
His family house was nearby, and inspired by his in-laws, he turned the ground floor into a taverna that he and Nikos would run. The house had a cute front garden surrounded by a fence clad in ivy, hence the name they gave to their new family business: Kissos (“kissos” means ivy in Greek). Father and son closed part of the garden to create a larger indoor seating area, but kept enough room for a few outdoor tables. Nikos parked himself in front of the grill – a large traditional charcoal grill where rows of lamb chops sizzle to this day. Spyros was in charge of service and Sophia – wife to Spyros, mother to Nikos and an exceptional cook – took over the kitchen.
The taverna was a hit in the neighborhood. Sophia’s talent in the kitchen, especially her dolmades (grape leaves stuffed with ground meat mixed with rice and herbs and served with an egg and lemon sauce), became legendary and so did Nikos’ grilling skills. Nikos and Mary’s daughter, also named Sophia, recalls her grandmother sitting by the fireplace with a huge bucket full of grape leaves by her side, rolling dolmades all day long.
Spyros and Sophia the elder have since passed away, and Sophia the younger is all grown up – she currently runs the taverna with her dad. Nikos never pushed either of his two daughters to work in the restaurant, as he didn’t want them doing it out of a sense of family duty or obligation. In fact, Sophia is a trained architect. But she struggled to find work in her field during the economic crisis, which led her to start waitressing at the restaurant.
“There are customers who have been faithfully coming here ever since we opened… They’ve seen me around here since I was a baby.”
Now Sophia, a gentle, smart and vibrant young woman, is in charge of the whole show, overseeing everything from the décor to the suppliers and the customers. “Before I came to work here I was literally a different person. I was a loner, a bit of an anti-social artist,” she says laughing. “This taverna has totally changed me. I had to develop my communication skills in order to serve the customers and deal with suppliers successfully. I became an extrovert. I meet lots of new people every day and I am much happier in here than I used to be in an office.”
And we must say, she’s a natural – moving around the restaurant, always with a smile on her face, she’s lively, friendly, polite and generous. “There are customers who have been faithfully coming here ever since we opened,” she tells us. “You get to grow a different relationship with those people. They’ve seen me around here since I was a baby.”
The taverna’s charm – red-and-white checked tablecloths, classic wooden chairs and tables, bouquets of fresh flowers (always mixed with ivy) – is all thanks to Sophia. The large windows, which open wide during summer, make the seating area resplendent and a very pleasant place to be during lunchtime.
Three years ago Sophia persuaded her mother, Mary, to join the team. Although a fabulous cook, Mary had never been fully involved with the taverna primarily because she chose to focus her attention on her daughters. But now that they’re all grown up, she has taken an active role in the Kissos kitchen.
Full of life and with a great sense of humor, Mary comes in every morning (together with her good mood) and prepares three daily specials – most of them are gone by the end of lunch. Then, after eating lunch and spending some time with her daughter and husband, she goes home to rest until the next day. During dinner, Nikos is still always at his position – the grill – and Sophia is overlooking everything, including the other cooks in the kitchen who prepare her grandmother’s recipes. Why change what people have loved for so long?
Among the best sellers are the incredibly sweet and crispy zucchini chips (when you’ve got these beauties, French fries become a distant memory); their delicious dolmades; the bifteki, grilled ground beef patties served plain with fries or dressed in a warm yogurt sauce; their juicy, tasty lamb chops that come from milk-fed lambs from Karystos on Euboea Island (a place famed for the high quality of their meat); the aromatic crispy-fried meatballs with lots of chopped fresh mint in them, just like mom makes at home; and the chicken chops with a pleasant smoky flavor from Nikos’ skillful charcoal grilling. Let’s also not forget the grilled kefalograviera cheese served with a lemon wedge on the side.
The meal ends with complimentary treats like their famous loukoumades (light, crispy doughnuts drizzled with honey and sprinkled with chopped nuts) or fantastic yogurt made by Kogias, a small producer based up north in a suburb called Anoixi. The yogurt is topped with Mary’s delightful handmade grape spoon sweet. We also sampled Mary’s homemade rose geranium liqueur, an explosion of aromas and flavor that left us with a pleasant floral aftertaste.
But perhaps the best end to the meal was learning that the extra virgin olive oil in our salads was produced by Nikos. Several years back, he found himself growing tired of the taverna – he missed farming and the fields he grew up in. So off he went and found a piece of land in Krines Corinthias, about an hour and a half drive from central Athens, full of olive trees and vines. Every Monday, when the taverna is shut, he relaxes by spending time in the fields and tending to his crops. Besides the olive oil, the farm provides the restaurant with all the grape leaves for their famous dolmades (the grapes go to Mary who makes the aforementioned spoon sweet out of them). It gives a whole new meaning to going back to your roots.
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