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After World War II, many Greek islanders left their homes and moved to Athens for work and a brighter future. Such was the case with Nikos and Irene Vasilas, who came to Athens from the island of Naxos during their late teenage years; Irene came from Apiranthos village and Nikos from Danakos, both mountain villages. Despite the fact they both came from the same island, the two of them met and got married in Athens, where Irene worked as a housekeeper and Nikos as a builder – or to be more precise, a “digger,” as they used to call those who specialized in digging into the hills for construction.

In those post-war years, the neighborhood the couple lived in – which would eventually be named Polygono – was situated on the city’s hilly outskirts. It’s where Nikos built their home, which still stands right here. The story of Axotis – the Vasilas family’s taverna that has stood, unchanged, right next to their family home in Polygono for over fifty years – began in 1956, when Nikos started making wine in his home basement – specifically, Retsina wine from Savatiano grapes, the indigenous variety of the region of Attica. His fellow builders and diggers would gather daily in Nikos and Irene’s basement to drink wine and socialize, which led Irene to start offering simple cooked food so they could pair their drinks – namely vrasto (which means “boiled” in Greek and it refers to boiled meat usually beef or lamb). Slowly, their D.I.Y. “bakalotaverna” came to life.

Back then, it was a very common thing in Athens to find this style of eatery. The bakalotavernas were hybrid grocery stores and taverns, where the main focus was on the wine – the food served was primarily meant for customers to pair with their drinks, and help them keep on drinking. These kinds of places were involved in the wine-making process itself, and the owners actually aged their wines in wooden barrels lined up in-store. In addition to serving their clients wine and simple food, they also sold wine to neighbors. The Vasilas family recall four or five of such venues on their street alone in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Around 1968, Nikos and his three sons decided to dig into the small hill right next to their home in order to build a separate taverna. They named it Axotis, which derives from Naxiotis and means “he who comes from Naxos.” Everyone had a job in the family-run taverna; Irene cooked everything back then, and Nikos and his three sons were in charge of the wines and running the eatery.

Around 1970, not long after they opened, Irene was forced to resign from the kitchen due to severe diabetes complications which caused her to lose her sight. Nikos decided to dedicate himself to supporting his wife’s needs. They stopped serving food and focused just on the wine, which he knew how to handle by himself. For over 15 years, Axotis did not serve any food, but they already had a steady stream of loyal customers – primarily Nikos’ friends and co-builders – and they let them bring their own food in, leftovers from home and simple dishes which they shared between them as meze for their wine.

Axotis entered a new era several years later, in 1993, when it was passed on to Nikos and Irene’s two grandchildren, Nikos (named after his grandfather) and Christos, who had grown up in the taverna. The team was complete with Evi, Niko’s wife, who took charge of the kitchen. At first, they started cooking just a few simple dishes and then gradually developed and improved the menu, which remains mostly the same today. Around the same year, however, they stopped producing wine. Grandpa Nikos was old now and his children, and particularly the grandchildren, decided it was time to stop production. They started sourcing it instead from the people with whom they had been collaborating for years on the wine-making process (people who own the vineyards and wine-making facilities in Mesogia, near the Athens airport – a traditional wine region). Axotis’s aged barrels started to fill with all kinds of wines apart from retsina; whites, reds and rosés.

Right before the Covid-19 pandemic broke, Christos decided to leave the business and Nikos and Evi’s sons, Michalis and Antonis, stepped in. Nikos and Evi run the kitchen, and the two sons are in charge of serving and taking orders. There are no other employees, not even a dish washer – the four of them do it all themselves, probably one of the reasons they are so good at what they do.

The space remains exactly the same as the day it opened; the family claims they haven’t changed a thing. There are about a dozen tables indoors, a few more outdoors on the sidewalk, and a semi-open kitchen where you can take glimpses of Nikos and Evi working together. The walls are decorated with old photos that give you an idea of what the neighborhood looked like almost a century back, and other family memorabilia such as old digging and building tools, some of which belonged to great-grandpa Nikos, while others belonged to customers who used to bring them as gifts to be put up on the wall. The barrels are lined up on the wall right as you enter, and at the back of the store where the old wine cellar used to be, hangs an old sign which reads “Oinopoleion,” which translates as “wine shop.”

Nikos and Evi have been following the same schedule for the past 31 years. They wake up early, handle orders and supplies, and prep everything in the kitchen in order to have it all ready by 7 p.m. when they open (except Sundays, when they also open for lunch).

Nikos tells us they buy nothing pre-made or pre-cut. Everything is made in-house, from the dips and dressings to the finely hand-cut potatoes and zucchini, both of which have made Axotis particularly famous. Think thin sticks of perfectly crispy fried potatoes and zucchini that you literally can’t stop eating, served with Greek-style dips such as tzatziki or their award-winning tyrokafteri (whipped feta with spicy pepper and olive oil).

Other iconic Axotis dishes include fried salted cod with skordalia (garlic dip typically served with fried cod in Greece), and the charcoal-grilled lamb chops, well seasoned and crispy on the outside and tender and juicy inside.

The wine lands on your table in the classic, traditional metal pitchers we find all over Greece in this type of simple eatery. You order it by the liter and then, similarly, you order the lamb chops by the kilo, served piled up on a platter and topped with lemon wedges to squeeze on top of the lamb chops while they are still piping hot. The salads, too, are freshly prepared and the menu prices are incredibly fair. Dinner ends with a thick slice of tahini halva drizzled with freshly squeezed lemon juice – dessert is on the house, as is the typical custom in Greece.

Manteau Stam

Published on March 10, 2023

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