Tales from the Taverna

Traditional Greek food is at its best when served with wine, conviviality and soulful live music - like it is at this family-owned favourite in Athens.

Plateia Theatrou’s days as a bustling business district are long gone. The square, located in the heart of Athens, is quiet except for one warmly lit corner where the noise never seems to die down. This is Klimataria, a traditional Greek taverna that first opened its doors in 1927.

It’s Wednesday night, past 10pm - peak dining hour in Greece - and the mandolin-like sounds of a live bouzouki (a traditional Greek instrument) ring through the open dining room. A singer’s voice washes over the dimly lit room as she clutches a mic under the glow of yellow lamps. An audience of taverna patrons sitting at long tables accompany her word-for-word, between puffs of cigarette smoke. In front of the makeshift stage, feet stamp hard on the timber floor and someone rises to dance, his arms spread out like an eagle as he staggers deliberately yet gracefully. Traditional Greek dancing only seems possible when it’s accompanied by passion and feeling; maybe also a shot or two of ouzo.

While all this happens, taverna servers dressed in plain clothes glide in from a back kitchen, placing dishes of Greek specialities on tables covered with disposable paper tablecloths - a buffer, should olive oil spill from the plates. Someone on the table then cuts the food into portions so it can be shared easily, and the house wine is passed around frequently. Each glass should be full at all times.

Taverna Klimataria offers the perfect balance of traditional music, dance and food. Owner Maria Sotou and her family believe that balance has kept their taverna going strong. Lunch hours are packed. The dinner crowd saunters in at a steady pace each night, knowing what to expect.

The restaurant is housed in a building that dates from the late 19th century and belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church. It’s built on the site of an ancient Greek temple and was used as a cafe before becoming a taverna. The business changed hands several times until the Sotou family took it over about 20 years ago.

Tavernas are a social affair because anyone can be here. It is everyman’s place. All classes can be comfortable because it’s not only a place to eat, it’s a place to just be,” explains Sotou. “As more foreign eateries and new types of restaurants fill the city, places like ours are near extinction. But, we have remained true.

In Greek, klimataria means grapevine and here vines are part of the restaurant’s decor, hanging from the ceiling.

Just outside the kitchen, a few large metal slow-cookers sit on a tray of hot sand, not as decorations but as working appliances. The dining space is lined with wooden chairs tucked under matching tables that can be easily pushed together to form bigger tables. On the walls, oversized shelves cradle giant wooden wine barrels. Leafy plants add a splash of colour to the rustic setting, as does the dolls’ clothing pinned up along some of the restaurant’s walls. “In a taverna, things are simple and nothing is hidden,” says Sotou.

Sotou is serving tonight and she sets down a couple of traditional wine glasses. They aren’t the classic stemmed type but look like oversized shot glasses, which she fills with house wine. “Taverna wine glasses are like this - strong - because we cheer a lot. They have to be sturdy to survive.

 

Humble history

According to Greek food writer Angelos Rentoulas, taverns were born out of practicality throughout Europe, opening up on main roads and offering rest and food. In Greece, they began to serve local wine and small appetisers called mezedes.

After World War II, refugees flooded Greek cities and tavernas were springing up like mushrooms because people needed a place outside their small homes to celebrate. They became meeting points and social centres of a new post-conflict society,” says Rentoulas, who has written extensively about taverna culture.

The early versions of Greek tavernas were rooted in the home. After the family was fed, a mother or grandmother would sell the extra food cooked that day to workers in the neighbourhood. With food, came wine. Tavernas would always have huge barrels of family vineyard-produced wine, stored in the dining room. The home-cooked food and wine would draw a sizeable crowd, which eventually attracted local musicians looking for a good audience. 

The Greek taverna is still evolving. Today, those located in the islands, villages and cities of Greece might be fronted by a smiling multilingual host who can woo the tourists, but they often remain family-run neighbourhood haunts. Sometimes, just like in the original tavernas, owners don’t even bother to print a menu - the waiter can simply list verbally at each table what’s cooking that day.

I think the main character of our Greek culture is simplicity,” says Sotou. “We have so much good basic produce that there is no need for complicated trendy things.

Rentoulas agrees. “Along with new variations of the modern style tavernas, the authentic taverna continues to exist, offering an inexpensive, unpretentious way to enjoy life. It’s in our DNA to go out and meet people and at tavernas we enjoy our time together.”  

The dishes are familiar to all Greeks: dips such as tzatziki and horiatiki (Greek salad), made of sliced cucumber, tomatoes, onions, olives, feta, olive oil and oregano. Bite-size appetisers include dolmadakia, a rice mixture wrapped in vine leaves. 

Mains can be slow-cooked dishes such as moussaka, or pastitsio, layers of pasta baked with minced meat. Both are topped with creamy thick bechamel sauce. Tis oras dishes, which might include chicken, lamb or spicy meat patties are grilled on the spot, and accompanied by fried sliced potatoes.

At the end of a meal, we offer dessert on the house, like slices of halva, traditional cake, or a plate of seasonal fruit. It’s part of our Greek hospitality. No matter what part of the meal, we share food. That is very important for us.” Sotou points out that music is also shared. In a taverna, you’ll hear the sounds of traditional Greek music called rembetika and laika.

 

The Meaning of Music

For Greeks, food and live music absolutely go together,” says Afentoula Razeli, a regular performer at Klimataria.

With its dramatic and poetic lyrics, rembetika reflects the harsh realities of life, touching on themes of love, war, loss, family and sadness. Deriving from Greece’s refugees from Asia Minor after the Turks destroyed Smyrna in 1922, it started as underground music, but by the 1950s, rembetika made its way into tavernas and clubs. Laika music (popular Greek songs) followed and is considered the commercialised rembetika.

Razeli is known for her soulful voice, perfect for singing laika, and prefers the informal ‘stage’ of a taverna so she can get to know the audience. “The way it is here reminds me of old times,” she says. “The younger Greeks like the traditional music and get to know the songs. Rembetika is like the flamenco of Greece, it crosses generations, and it will always touch our hearts.

When Greeks sing, they end up dancing. In a taverna, anyone can take the floor and expression comes in the form of traditional dances such as hasapiko, zeibekiko and tsifteteli. “Here we eat, drink, sing, dance - so many things,” says Razeli. “It can also offer a bit of psychotherapy, I guess. It’s the company, the friendships, the entertainment. Not all tavernas need to have music, but with the economic crisis, I believe more need it.

Rentoulas says that’s what’s so great about these dining institutions; they can evolve to meet the needs of the time, which is why Greeks enjoy visiting them.

Sotou agrees. “With the crisis, I think the love for the taverna has developed. It is the social connection that is successful because it’s based on our relationships as Greeks. We love to drink, smoke, eat - and we love to do all of that in big groups.

She nods her head as she glances at the crowd behind her. “This is relaxing for us. This is a place for everyone.

 

Eat

Some tavernas are known for live music, others for their sea views. What remains steady is the authentic Greek cuisine served. 

Wine goes with any meal, as do beer and Greek liquors such as ouzo or tsipouro, a type of brandy. Restaurants cater to lunch crowds starting at noon. Taverna owners are ready for dinner service in the late afternoon, but most Greeks will make their appearance at around 10pm. A complimentary shared dessert or plate of fruit will generally be served to end the meal. Music, food and dance are part of the experience at both Oinopoleion taverna (12 Eschilou, Psirri) and Klimataria (2 Plateia Theatrou, Monastiraki). Located in the heart of Athens, Paradosiako (44 Voulis) is famous for grilled meat and fish dishes, and since 1932, Athenians have frequented Platanos taverna (4 Diogenous, Plaka), located in the shadow of the Acropolis. Forget menus at To Kati Allo (12 Hatzichristou, Makrigianni) and Mana’s Kouzina-Kouzina (27 Aiolou, St Irene Sq) and just see what’s cooking on the day.

Culture 

To see taverna life in action, watch the 1989 film Shirley Valentine, about a housewife who sets off on a Greek island vacation that turns her life upside down. Want to replicate the tavern experience at home? More than 50 years ago, a church group in New York started writing a cookbook to raise money for their church. Today the Complete Book of Greek Cooking: The Recipe Club of St Paul’s Orthodox Cathedral is the go-to collection of authentic recipes. You’ll need tunes to accompany your meal, and you can’t look past Vasilis Tsitsanis - the late singer and bouzouki player was a rembetika music legend.

 

Stay

The Emporikon Athens Hotel (27AAiolou, Plaka) is a beautifully refurbished 19th-century landmark building in the heart of a historic district. A hip, colourful interior defines New Hotel (16 Filellinon, Syntagma Sq). St George Lycabettus Boutique Hotel (2 Kleomenous) is at home between the upmarket district of Kolonaki and the city’s pine-forested slopes of Lycabettus Hill, offering panoramic views of the Acropolis and the Saronic Gulf. Creative art concepts meet luxury at Pallas Athena (65 Athinas), one of the best art hotels in the capital. Hotel Grande Bretagne (1 Vasileos Georgiou A, Syntagma Sq) in the heart of Athens is known for its spa, rooftop restaurant and panoramic views.

Marissa Tejada - Published in Voyeur June 2016
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 3 700 000
Time Zone UTC +1
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