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Nikea, known before 1940 as Kokkinia (sometimes, you’ll still hear this old name used), is an area that feels almost like a different city, perhaps even a bigger village on an island. When you come out of the metro, the road is dotted with houses instead of higher-rise apartment buildings, and it is mostly quiet, with one very notable exception – guys in cars with high-power engines rev up as they move through this area. These are kagouras, a classification of car-obsessed men, usually, that are found to the outer suburbs of Athens, mostly in the south and west. They’re a clear sign that you’ve truly left the center of the city.

This is where you’ll find Zarkadoulas Kavouria, or Zarkadoulas Crabs, a small seafood taverna that extends on both sides of Vithinias Street. It gives off island vibes – the window frames of the front of the restaurant are painted blue, while the building across the street is coated in that hallmark white, and the outdoor seating is covered by a tent of green grape vines.

Greek seafood has a notable reputation. When you imagine a table laden with dishes from the Aegean, you most likely picture octopus tentacles gently curled into tendrils, battered and fried red mullet, calamari scorched with grill marks, and any number of large fish that are opened up and deboned right there at your table. There’s even a good chance that the menu will offer up shellfish, like mussels swimming in buttery garlic sauce or lobsters heaped on mounds of pasta.

But rarely, if ever, would you find crabs on the table. We’re talking the big ones, in hard shells that need to be crushed with a mallet. This makes crabs a prized catch, especially in Athens, so trekking out to Zarkadoulas, just on the edge of Athens’ Piraeus neighborhood, is a must.

For the owner, Gregory Zarkadoulas, Nikea has changed a lot. He is from this area, and has worked at Zarkadoulas with his father since he was 12 years old, so he has seen the area evolve, along with his clientele – 80 percent of which is now made up of people from other neighborhoods in the city, he says.

In Zarkadoulas’ earliest history, it was a kafeneio (a café that also serves food), Gregory says, but when he was around 18 years old, he and his father decided to make a change. The kafeneio format involved “lots of people just sitting around,” he explained, and that was not financially feasible.

His father, however, had a background in seafood. He had worked at a fish tavern in Tzitzifies, past Kallithea, to the south of Athens, and there, they would bring crabs out whole. So when they brought the crabs to Nikea, his father started breaking them into four pieces. It was Gregory who decided to break the crabs down further, from four to eight pieces, making them less cumbersome and more of a finger food for hungry customers.

And this is how the dish comes out today: the body of the crab is broken into eight pieces, and it requires a bit of talent and dexterity to separate the meat from the shell, but it’s well worth it. The crabs come from the Atlantic, says Gregory, and their distributor has remained the same since the beginning, further cementing the air of tradition about this place.

The kitchen in the back is unpretentious, with a simple grill stacked high with crab parts. Next to the grill, there’s a counter with a wooden cutting board – this is where the smashing happens. Gregory does this part, piling crab claws onto the wood and cracking the shells with a heavy metal mallet, sending shell fragments spraying across the counter. He does it quickly, giving each portion a few hard cracks, and then tosses them onto the plate or into a tin takeaway container with the rest of the order.

Here, you order crab by the kilo, but it’s not the only seafood available (although it’s definitely the reason that this place is full most nights). Because the menu is based on what the catch of the day is, the best move is to ask a staff member what’s available – usually a selection of fish like red mullet or sardines, and lots of classic Greek taverna sides, including Greek salad, horta (or boiled greens), and dips (think tzatziki or skordalia, a garlic dip that pairs particularly well with fish).

As the service staff sprints from one side of the street to the other, their arms laden with plates as they artfully dodge the steady stream of traffic, a breeze lightly lifts the green vines from the wooden trellis, and the smell of seafood almost makes you believe you’ve escaped to the sea for a moment. Gregory sits outside in a brief lull from the grill, sipping a beer and watching as people trickle in and out. “We do this with a lot of love,” he says. Gregory believes that even if the restaurant doesn’t stand out as a destination, they are so passionate about the quality of the ingredients they keep on the table that customers will continue to visit. “This is why they will come,” he says.

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Katherine WhittakerKatherine Whittaker

Published on August 25, 2022

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