For over a century, the dense downtown Exarchia neighborhood, located near the National Technical University and the Law School of Athens, has been deeply connected to the city’s students. Greece’s first student revolution took place there in 1901, resulting in the resignation of both the leading government and the Archbishop of the time. Since then, Exarchia has maintained its revolutionary spirit, displaying its most prominently during the Athens Polytechnic uprising against the military junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974.
An everlasting sort of vendetta has remained between the student population of Exarchia and the police – often with dramatic results. Everything is recorded on the walls of the neighborhood, in the form of mostly political graffiti that covers any reachable surface, as well as many seemingly unreachable ones. The artistic (some say anarchistic) flair of this historic neighborhood is often misunderstood by many – especially visitors traveling to Athens for the first time. But not so much beneath as woven into Exarchia’s grittiness is a lively and vibrant neighborhood with a strong sense of community. Full of bars, cafes and restaurants lined one next to the other, Exarchia’s sidewalks are crowded with small tables occupied by a mostly young crowd.
Here, you will also find funky vintage stores, old-school guitar shops, retro record stores and alternative bookstores. Live gigs, underground concerts and stand-up comedy shows abound. Off the more central streets of Exarchia, where traffic is notorious during the day, there are several tiny, tucked away pedestrian-only backstreets that offer a quiet and picturesque setting for outdoor drinking and dining.
One of the most charming of these is Methonis Street, where at No. 43 sits a beautiful old house with terracotta-painted walls and dark green shutters. The house is said to have been built in the early 1900s by an architect from Ithaca. Legend goes that he built it all by himself then moved in with his family, who lived in the house until 1979. Back then, Methonis Street was not yet pedestrianized and cars could speed through.
In 1982, two friends opened up Avli inside the building. Avli means courtyard in Greek, and this little place does indeed have one of the cutest Athenian courtyards we’ve seen around here. Black and white tiles checker the floor, wrapping around an old well and under potted plants and a handful of classic Greek taverna-style wooden tables and chairs. In the first 30 years of its existence, Avli’s menu was simple, serving a few classic Greek dishes and adding a handful more when one owner’s wife, Eleni, took over. She brought on a young professional chef, Panayiotis Barlis, to take over the kitchen in 2013, before she retired a couple of years later. In 2015, she offered Panayiotis the opportunity to take Avli over. In his early 30s at the time, Panayiotis felt he had enough experience and it was time to make his move – so he accepted.
He kept the name and the space as it was, but he says he realized the menu needed to be polished. The cuisine remained Greek, but Panayiotis started focusing much more on the quality and seasonality of ingredients. Now, the menu changes three times a year, in May, October and February, and he pays particular attention to his specials. “Our daily dishes often help me shape the menu, because I get to see what my clients like the most,” he tells us. Some of these dishes become so popular that they find their permanent place on his seasonal menu.
Some of the appetizers cleverly incorporate well-selected cheeses from around Greece, proving that Panayiotis has done his research. Grilled Mastelo from Chios – a tasty cheese quite similar to haloumi in texture – is served with homemade seasonal jam. Spicy baked feta is topped with tomatoes, olives and cured pork. There’s fried Ladotyri, a PDO cheese from Lesvos Island. And the daily special we tried on our recent stop was an onion pie with creamy Skotyri, a savory and fresh (aged two months) sheep’s and goat’s milk cheese with white pepper from Ios Island.
Black and white tiles checker the floor, wrapping around an old well and under potted plants and a handful of classic Greek taverna-style wooden tables and chairs. In the first 30 years of its existence, Avli’s menu was simple, serving a few classic Greek dishes.
To eke the most out of the basket of sourdough bread, we ordered an eggplant tzatziki. A very interesting version of the traditional yogurt dip, it replaced grated cucumber with roasted eggplant puree and a splash of pomegranate molasses. The round-shaped tomato fritters with yogurt on the side were also fluffy and tasty. And that’s just the appetizers!
For mains, there was a tri-tip with a side of baby potatoes, both grilled pork and chicken cutlets, and biftekia, a popular Greek-style grilled beef meatball with chopped onions and herbs. Panayiotis has also introduced some mouthwatering slow-cooked traditional dishes like veal cooked in wine that’s served with sundried tomatoes and hylopites (egg and milk noodles). There is Yiouvetsi, a traditional orzo dish, although Panayiotis twists the classic by switching out meat for shrimp and crab claws. The daily dishes always include fresh fish, and a recent special of grilled tuna steak with a simple potato and caper side salad drizzled in lemon and olive oil did was beyond exquisite.
Panayiotis works in the restaurant daily, and does most of the shopping as well. Even on Mondays, when Avli is closed, he still heads over to clean and organize the kitchen or do other chores that are always popping up. “A restaurant has far more things to do and organize apart from the cooking,” he says. “Many of our regular customers live around here, and we have people who have been coming since it first opened in the early 80s.”
Avli has a small selection of bottled wines and distilled drinks like ouzo and tsipouro, and most of the beers are from Greek microbreweries. Be sure to ask about the seasonal daily specials, and make a reservation in order to savor a long meal either in the cute courtyard or out on the car-free street, under the olive trees.
Published on November 05, 2021