Before we start this story, we must first explain the role of the platia in Greece. Platia (πλατεία, pronounced pla-tee-ah and sometimes spelled plateia) means “plaza” in Greek, and can refer to a central town square or a small neighborhood square.
All ages meet at the platia: babies in strollers, loud children running and playing like there’s no tomorrow, teenagers having their first smoke or kiss, parents, grandparents, cats, dogs! These squares are to be found all around Greece, even in the most remote village. The role of the plaza in an Athenian neighborhood is even more vital and precious. It preserves the idea of a neighborhood, where everyone gets to know each other and share something in common. These plazas are also what, to a great degree, kept people sane over the last two years after the endless Covid-related lockdowns.
In the backstreets of Athens’ Koukaki neighborhood, towards Petralona on one side and Kallithea on the other, lies a special plaza that is a bit greener and larger than others – you could even call it a small park. It is named “Elpida” (ελπίδα, meaning hope), and apart from the many benches that you usually find in such plazas, it is filled with tables and chairs belonging to the cute little restaurant across the street.
ParkBench was opened in August 2018 by the couple Dimitris Soutsos and Aspa Selepe and their friend Stelios (who left the endeavor in 2020). The trio found the location by chance; the space was once an Italian restaurant, although it looked very different from what we see today.
Dimitris, a 44-year-old chef, grew up in Athens. In fact, he was born and raised in Koukaki, but admits he never knew this part of the neighborhood. After working in many well-known restaurants around Greece, including the award-winning Selene restaurant in Santorini, he felt an urge to do something of his own with his partner Aspa.
She too had worked for several years in the restaurant industry, first as a waitress and later as a head of staff. Her organizational and communication skills combined with Dimitris’ culinary talents provided a stable foundation for their dream project. Their first thought was to find a good location on an island, but they couldn’t find something that they liked enough so they started looking in Athens. When they discovered this hidden side of Koukaki and saw the space with the beautiful little park right across it, they immediately knew they had found their spot.
The role of the plaza in an Athenian neighborhood is even more vital and precious. It preserves the idea of a neighborhood, where everyone gets to know each other and share something in common.
They started working on the space with a very tight budget. “We built almost everything ourselves due to our low budget,” Aspa remembers with a smile. “We even made the ceramic lights ourselves. Dimitris and I love making ceramics.”
The space is very relaxed and simple, with a clean, minimal design and a few retro hints here and there. The kitchen is open, and the indoor space holds a few tables (though not in use due to Covid). But thanks to Athens’ typically ideal weather, the large outdoor space – both on the sidewalk right outside and across the street in the plaza – makes for ample seating.
Not surprisingly, considering its location, ParkBench is great any time of day: a light lunch under the shade of the trees, an after-work pit stop for a spritz and a quick bite (we always eat food when we drink alcohol in Greece!), an afternoon coffee and dessert, or a pleasantly cozy dinner.
Their menu has hints of Asian and Mediterranean cuisines, with a long list of traditional Greek ingredients. These include carob, capers, trahana, staka (clarified goat butter from Crete), taramas (cured fish roe), bulgur and quality cheeses. These are paired and plated in a more contemporary, fusion style. For instance, the classic kolokythokeftedes – the zucchini fritters found on most Greek taverna menus and typically served with yogurt or tzatziki – are here paired with a light and pleasantly tangy cashew cream, made with chile and lime.
More unexpected are the sushi platters with a Greek twist. We ordered ones with fresh anchovies and sea bass, to great satisfaction. We also loved their take on the Niçoise salad. Refreshing and light, it was ideal to pair with one of the wines on their superb list. Instead of tuna, the salad includes fresh, thinly sliced and tender octopus carpaccio. Baby potatoes are boiled to perfection and tossed with fennel bulb, cherry tomatoes, green beans and edamame, and seasoned with an anchovy-based tartar sauce. Their seafood linguini is a best-seller and very unusual, considering how it’s normally prepared in Greece. At ParkBench, it’s bright pink from the vibrant beet and cashew pesto, though it arrives with the familiar sautéed prawns, octopus and squid.
For meat lovers, different cuts of beef like tri-tip and flap adorn the menu, while their burgers are especially delightful. We particularly loved the cod burger with ground prawns mixed into the fish patty. The patty has a crispy outer layer, is sandwiched in a large, handmade bao bun and served with stir-fried vegetable and a spicy mayo. They have special daily dishes and those that are particularly popular get their permanent place on the menu.
For dessert, the lemon cream on a biscuit cookie, merengue served with fresh berries and beautiful thyme gelato are all divine. Due to its location and because the plaza at certain hours of the day attracts families and children, they also offer a simpler kids menu with smaller portions and lower prices. Finally, their wine list is superb. It’s designed by All About Wine, a team of experts in Athens who promote Greek wines, especially those made by small producers.
Dimitris leads the kitchen, but tries to split tasks among everyone so they are involved in all aspects of the restaurant. He says he always wanted to create something affordable and relaxed so that everyone could take part in something good. “I cook with emotion,” he says, “and the only rule I have on this menu is that everything we serve is something that we ourselves would enjoy eating.” The rest is left to what’s in season, their creativity and the available ingredients.
Before snagging your seat at ParkBench, just be sure of one thing: You get there when there’s still light out. Soak in the Greek plaza vibe with a plate of great food and a glass of perfect wine.
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