There’s something about Rakoumel that tastes like home. You might not have a Greek grandma, but dig your fork into any of the dishes here, and for a moment, you can almost imagine you do. The space itself is cozy, with indoor seats that look into a garden and the kitchen to the back. In the front, the sidewalk is speckled with tables that are almost always full, and live music spills into the street when bands set up at one of the tables. It’s a place where raki flows, where an electric energy invites you to come back and feel like you’re part of the family.
And Rakoumel is, in fact, a family business. The owner, Yiannis, opened the restaurant 17 years ago with his mother, Argyro. He had just finished his mandatory military service, he explains, and was searching for what to do next. Yiannis had been working as a DJ in the Exarchia neighborhood at a club called Decadence, which holds a storied place in Athens’ extensive nightlife lore (the Tindersticks and Nick Cave were some high-profile patrons), so he knew the area well.
At the same time, Argyro was looking for something to do, and Yiannis decided to pitch her the idea that they work together. “Why don’t we use your talents in cooking, and my connections, to open a Cretan restaurant?” he recalls. This is exactly what they did, back when there were no Cretan options in the area but plenty of demand.
Yiannis comes from Ierapetra in Crete, and his mother is also a repository of knowledge about Crete’s traditions. In fact, Yiannis explains, “When she was young, Crete was even more traditional,” and she taught him plenty of customs that he had never heard of. Her recipes actually came from Yiannis’ grandmother, and they started to bring in products from small producers back on the island. She was a great cook, “but it’s never easy to work with parents,” he laughs. Now, Argyro is retired; a recent post from the restaurant’s Instagram account shows a throwback photo of her, and a caption that says for the first time, they cut the traditional New Year cake, vasilopita, without her.
The dishes themselves at Rakoumel aren’t trying too hard, and they don’t feature anything fancy. They’re soul-warming, consistent, and simple – and, in fact, if you ask Yiannis, this could be considered the ethos of the Cretan kitchen. “The elements and ingredients are so pure and so unique that you don’t need a lot of extras,” he says. “They have some magic.”
Take the zucchini flowers stuffed with rice, for instance, which is fresh and herby, with just a perfume-like hint of zucchini. And the Cretan horiatiki salad, which is a basic Greek salad that gets a little extra oomph from stinging nettle and boiled potatoes. There are cheeses from Crete, like the myzithra from Chania, as well as plenty of classic, no-frills recipes, like the snails bourbouristoi, a dish that any Greek will tell you is iconically Cretan.
“If you’ve been to Crete, if you taste these dishes again, even from afar, it can transport you back,” says Yiannis, and he’s right. You might be sitting in the heart of a major city, surrounded by revving motorbikes and busy commuters, but for a second, you can imagine yourself at your yiayia’s house in the mountains of Chania, the sea spread out before you.
But Rakoumel (named for rakomelo, something Yiannis used to drink as a child – it’s a homemade mix of honey and booze, often given as medicine) pays respect to Crete’s culture and traditions in other ways too. If you order delivery or takeout, you receive six different stickers with your order that give a little taste of the culture on Greece’s biggest island.
The first, the goddess of snakes, is a Minoan symbol for the first matriarchal society – “so of course we have it,” says Yiannis – and then there’s the Minotaur, a well-known myth about a horrible creature that lived in a labyrinth at Knossos Palace. Another shows the sariki, a traditional headscarf worn by Cretan men; a wild goat, known locally as the kri kri, which has been hunted to near extinction; Antonis Xylouris, also known as Psarantonis, a famous local composer and musician; and the Cretan lyra, an instrument that forms the cornerstone of the island’s music. With so much to learn about Crete and its culture, Rakoumel might just be the perfect place to start.
Katherine WhittakerKatherine Whittaker
Published on March 17, 2023
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