Home to the massive and impressively renovated former Fix brewery, which will eventually house the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Koukaki is an old-fashioned neighborhood with an unassuming yet contagious charm, which in recent years has attracted an intellectual and stylish crowd who balance their love of novelty with an appreciation of the traditional. Compared to other Athenian neighborhoods, Koukaki is not glossy and trendy like Kolonaki, or studded with ancient gems like Plaka or Thiseio, loud and bustling like Monastiraki or primarily residential like Pangrati, nor is it elegantly ethereal like the hallowed district of the Acropolis, just a few steps up the road. Yet for regular visitors and its residents, an incongruous yet harmonious mishmash of old Athenians who have lived there most of their life, hipster millennials and urban creatives in their early 40s who find it the perfect area to raise their kids, it’s a beloved place that has an urban village quality, with small shops (bakeries, tailors, cobblers, fishmongers, butchers, florists, even a store that sells only eggs) instead of chain stores and supermarkets, and several artsy spaces such as galleries, design stores and museums in the adjacent Makryianni and Acropolis districts.
A growing number of boho-chic, high-standard restaurants, cafés and bars have opened there during the last few years, which have definitely raised its appeal as a trendy area, and it is expected that once the museum opens its doors (the date remains a mystery) the cultural ambience is set to palpably intensify. Airbnb, the world’s most successful home rental firm, has ranked Koukaki among the world’s “16 neighborhoods to travel to in 2016”. This resulted from an analysis, by Airbnb, of travel patterns of more than 40 million guests in 2015 and selected neighborhoods in cities that have gained momentum in the past year. Considering the firm has over 1,500,000 listings in 34,000 cities and 190 countries, that’s pretty impressive!
The Syngrou Fix metro station is one of the busiest commuting spots in Athens, as it is located on busy Syngrou Avenue, where there are connections with trams and buses heading in numerous directions. The lackluster look of the station, set as it is right on the noisy highway, is compensated by the presence inside of four notable artworks by world-renowned kinetic artist “Takis”, who has established himself in Paris and New York, creating works that displays his passion for science, exploring the gap between art and science, and Zen Buddhism. The lobby level’s three walls facing the escalators are graced by “Light Signals” that spin and light up from gusts of air that rise from the platform below as the trains come and go. On the wall facing commuters as they descend into the station is a giant artwork-cum-solar panel that absorbs energy from a light shining onto it and in turn activates light-bulbs on the canvas, titled “Photovoltaic Energy”, which Takis created to raise awareness about the benefits of solar energy.
Upon exiting the station you will see a “Grigoris” cafeteria and a “Goody’s” fast food joint on either side. Head for Veikou Street, where you can start getting a feel of the area, which was named after bed-maker Georgios Koukakis, whose home was the first residence in the neighborhood (on the corner of Dimitrakopoulou and Olymbiou streets) in the early 1920s. You’ll note that architecturally, there is a mix of two-story buildings in styles from the 1920s-1950s which are wedged between apartment buildings erected since the 1970s, when much of Athens was transformed by aesthetically haphazard construction in order to accommodate the growing influx of domestic migrants, during a period when hundreds of villages around the country were vacated as their inhabitants flocked to the capital, seduced by the prospect of wealthier more affluent urban lifestyle.
Note: After visiting the busier parts of Koukaki – Veikou, Dimitrakopoulou, Falirou, Olymbiou & Drakou streets – it’s worth seeing the more residential part. Especially scenic and quiet Tsami Karatasou Street (named after an 1821 War of Independence fighter; in fact most of Koukaki’s streets are named after the valiant men who lost their lives fighting for Greece’s liberation from the Ottoman yoke), just two roads down from verdant Filopappou hill. Neoclassical and other low-rise buildings line the street, and at number 62 it’s hard not to notice a particularly eccentric house plastered with colorful porcelain plates, tiles, mosaics and other somewhat gaudy and surreal designs; this is the home of artist Margarita Theodorakis, daughter of world-famous composer Mikis Theodorakis who continues to receive the world’s adulation for his timeless compositions, including the score for “Zorba the Greek” and “The Ballad of Mauthausen”.
BREAD FOR EXCELLENCE
Mama Psomi is a five-year-old bakery known especially for its top-quality breads and delicious homemade pies – as well as its piano. “The owners used to be theater performers,” Rosa tells me as I nibble on a creamy zucchini and feta pie made with soft, fresh pastry, seated at the piano, “so they love the arts. We play music to relax at the end of the day, or when a piano-playing friend stops by, and their young son plays magnificently!” Mama Psomi’s products, most of which are made with healthy, high-quality ingredients, include tahini and orange cookies, cinnamon-oat biscuits, pies filled with mushrooms, chicken, minced beef or cheese, various types of bread as well as specialty breads sold every Saturday (which must be pre-ordered due to high demand) such as hazelnut and bulgur wheat or gluten-free Zeas flour loaves.
• 42-44 Zacharitsa St.
Fabrika tou Efrosynou is run by chef Giorgos Gatsos (whose restaurant Negroponte in Thessaloniki’s Ladadika district has been a great success) and his oenologist wife Athina Tsoli. She is one of only two experts in the country (the other is Angelike Biba) whose job it is to advise winemakers in different regions on how to make their magic. She also has her own wine label, Athina, which brings together a select group of small winemakers with whom she has shared her expertise. The restaurant, on a street where there used to be many small manufacturers, is named after the patron saint of cooks and chefs, Euphrosynos, who is said to have appeared to an abbot in a dream in which he was in paradise surrounded by apple trees. Upon hearing that the abbot was hungry, the saint handed him three apples, which the abbot found on his bedside table when he awoke. Apart from a fine selection of Greek labels on offer, the restaurant serves traditional, regional cuisine with a creative twist, made chiefly using fresh, seasonal and local ingredients. Thursday is fish day (Gatsos has been dubbed “the father of fish” by several satisfied customers and reviewers and the fish is always freshly caught.)
• 34 Zinni St.
With all the walking around, my appetite returned with a vengeance, so I headed to a place I’ve heard so much about, Guarantee. The sandwich shop, which opened in 1986, is the kind of place you could easily pass without taking a second look; so unassuming is its exterior. In fact that’s exactly what I did, twice, while searching for it, until I noticed a tiny space crammed with people and a queue spilling out onto the narrow pavement. With no menu at all, customers are invited to simply feast their eyes on a display of around 25 cheeses, grilled vegetables, caramelized onions, marinated mushrooms, pink roast beef, smoked, boiled and cured hams, salami, smoked salmon, exotic chutneys such as strawberry with pink pepper, sauces such as Béarnaise, along with tangy mustards, and choose the ingredients for the sandwich of their dreams. Owners Yiannis and Haroula are more than happy to suggest enticing combinations and an interesting conversation about the details of your lunch may ensue. Fillings are generous; the bread is top quality and prices (3 or 6 euros) are very reasonable. You can also buy freshly juiced fruit, vegetable and herb drinks, again with good advice on what can best boost your mental or physical state.
• 41 Veikou St.
Hardcore Athens foodies have described Monsieur Barbu as a “high-class burger joint”. I spoke with chef Marios Simitas, whose brother Christos (a graphic artist whose legendary beard gave its name to the place) owns the eatery with his photographer wife Natalia Dokoumetzidi. The team here focuses on cooking up appetizing comfort food, such as mouthwatering “mama-style” burgers (with a veggie option too), but also offers signature cocktails made with ingredients that include homemade jams. The Sunday Brunch (spicy tandoori chicken tortilla, BLT, pancakes and eggs) is so popular that they’ve been turning away customers. Fortunately, they are now planning to serve brunch on Saturdays too. Monsieur Barbu also prides itself on its desserts, made by well-known blogger Ioanna Chalmouki (aka Pasta Flora), whose fluffy carrot cake is all the rage.
• 59 Falirou St.
Kalamaki Bar serves various grilled meats (lamb, beef, chicken) on a stick as well as halloumi cheese and portobello mushrooms, freshly cut chips, and a good variety of fresh salads. The décor of white island-style chairs and wooden tables, soft lighting, shelves lined with attractive bottles of wine and olive oil, and clear vases with bright white and yellow flowers, is as pleasing as the rich flavors of its food offerings, friendly service and affordable prices. This neo-Greek eatery provides a new, refreshing alternative to the all-too-common greasy, smoky souvlaki joint, and it’s probably no coincidence that it’s located in Koukaki.
• 15 Drakou St.
COCKTAIL CULTURE: FASHION AND BEYOND
Hands down, Koukaki’s most “in” spot right now is the corner of Falirou and G. Olymbiou streets. The corner overlooks a small (and I must add, malodorous) park with grassy patches, some interesting architecture, benches, a group of animated Armenian immigrants who regularly play checkers by an empty pool, and provides a final neighborhood feel before you emerge onto noisy, polluted and frantic Syngrou Avenue.
Named after the American lubricant manufacturers, Bel-Ray, because it was formerly an oil change station and car wash, as the sign outside still attests, the cocktail bar and eatery opened in 2014. It is an airy space with huge windows that let in the light, clean, minimalist décor with a hint of 60s America, and an oversize cartoon strip above the bar featuring a thuggish, egg-head car mechanic with a handlebar moustache. The cocktails, prepared by experienced barmen, are held in high regard (none will be mentioned here as the food & drinks menu is changing as I write this, as it does three times a year), and the indulgent brunch-style meals and quality coffee – the fruit of cooperation with the Coffee Republic’s “Single Estate” project – provide instant gratification for fashionable, high-flying city folk. Bel Ray is open daily from 10:00 – 02:00 (later at weekends, when it hosts DJs and now on Sundays, vinyl-record events).
• 88 Falirou St.
Potami attracts a similarly trendy crowd at its outdoor tables but has a less glossy ambience within – also laid back, but reflecting a playful New Age philosophy through its colorful décor. It is run by a 14-member cooperative that engages in various humanitarian actions and they prefer to keep out of the limelight. Potami (“river” in Greek) is named after the nearby Ilissos and serves homemade pies and bread, tsikoudia and numerous meze platters with items mainly from Crete, as well as a selection of Greek beers (including several of the recently popular unpasteurized variety). On some evenings they host live performances of Greek rembetiko music or funk/jazz bands, as well as stand-up comedy and DJs. “We are casual, friendly and welcome everyone,” one of the co-op members tells me when I ask where their appeal lies. Their prices are also crisis-friendly, “and we are always prepared to serve a hot meal to someone in need,” he adds.
• 27-29 Olymbiou St. & 122 Syngrou Ave.
COFFEE, BEER AND MEZE
Near pedestrian-only Drakou Street (which leads up from the Syngrou Fix metro station) is a tiny square on Falirou Street where three more popular café-bars are located.
Ο Babas is a space created by a father for his son. Owner Kostas Marangos has granted ownership of the place to his son, and says, “So I named it ‘the father’ as a reminder to him!” The décor too reveals his fatherly love – an infant’s onesie inside a picture frame, a bicycle hanging from the ceiling, and more homely elements such as the pretty village-style window.
O Babas is the kind of place that inspires hours of backgammon while sipping tsipouro or iced coffee and nibbling on a light meal or meze, but it also attracts people working on their laptop or groups of friends of different ages. Marangos encourages young artists to showcase their work in the café-bar and is currently presenting the works of newcomer painter Giorgos Dimitriou.
• 53 Falirou St.
Next door is Syngrouomeno, which attracts a more studenty (Panteion University is close by), alternative crowd that evidently feels the need to graffiti bold human rights messages on the inside of toilet doors.
With a wall of faces (literally) in the cafeteria’s interior and a somewhat edgy – but friendly enough – bar staff, this is a great hangout for meze and more unpasteurized Greek beer (but not only) in an animated yet laid-back ambience.
Like Potami, it too is run by a cooperative, made up of eight members, who make a point of sourcing their ingredients from small producers (mostly around Volos, from where many of the members hail).
• 57 Falirou St.
A sugar-colored, doll-house-sized creperie that experiments with flavors and ingredients, Bon Bon serves Mediterranean and French-inspired crepes, cupcakes with liquid chocolate, candies and even cocktails.
The owners wanted to overturn the mundane, street-food profile of crepes in Greece and elevate them to the versatile, delicate and exciting status they deserve, by creating brunch dishes such as crepe with fried egg, crepes filled with smoked salmon and cream cheese, or with prosciutto and metsovone cheese with rocket, and for dessert with bitter chocolate mousse and cookies.
With only three small tables and a bench seating five in its minuscule interior, Bon Bon can be an ideal cozy getaway on a rainy day when all you want is a cup of tea and indulgent bites.
• 12 Drakou St.
My Koukaki, by lifetime resident Maro Vouyiouka
Maro Vouyiouka, together with Vassilis Megaridis, wrote the award-winning series of Odonymika books under the aegis of the City of Athens, in which they list every street in the capital and its suburbs in astonishing detail. Vouyiouka, whose parents made their home in Koukaki in 1928, and who still lives there today, has witnessed all its changing faces. She spoke to me a little about how Koukaki used to be in the pre-war years:
“It was a small community then and everyone knew each other in the pre-war years,” Vouyiouka says. “We faced the horrors of WWII together, witnessing Nazi atrocities (such as arrests and executions), and endured the horrifying effects of the famine, the worst in Europe, which had people screaming with hunger and dying in the streets.”
“One wartime event that deeply shocked the neighborhood was the execution of 17-year-old resistance fighter Iro Konstandopoulou, whose home in Gargaretta Square still stands – although in disrepair – at 57 Veikou Street. She was tortured for three weeks by the SS, who then executed her in Kaisariani with 17 bullets, one for each year of her life. On the day Athens was liberated from the Axis powers, her 40-day memorial service was held at Aghios Ioannis church and all of Koukaki attended.”
“We didn’t have supermarkets back then; we shopped at grocery stores… most of them were on Olymbiou Street. We usually went to Exarchos & Dengas, and I recall Dengas always had a pencil balanced behind his ear because shop owners then wrote out receipts with a pencil that had to be licked to write well.”
“There were two cinemas, Mitsi on Veikou and my favorite, Proteas on Zinni (now a school), which remained open during both winter and summer. It was a beautiful cinema, owned by Nana Mouskouri’s parents (her father was the projectionist), and she practically grew up in there. Syngrou was just a street then, with a large pavement on either side where we took our afternoon strolls.”
“Throughout my years here, I have seen many changes – for example, none of the original shops from my youth remain, and a lot of new residents have settled here – but overall Koukaki has remained the same. Fortunately, it’s not one of those neighborhoods that have been transformed by modernity and made unrecognizable…”
AIM OF THE GAME: KOUKAKI’S BILLIARDS HALL
I entered a different world at Mister 100, where members of Koukaki’s Association of Amateur Billiards Players gather daily. I wasn’t taken aback when I saw a small cluster of elderly men seated deep inside the dimly lit hall, some sipping their morning coffee and others already on their second beer, but was somewhat surprised to meet the dynamic female proprietor, Dimitra Loubardia. I talked with Charalambos Sioupas, one of the original members, and a regular since the place opened 20 years ago. “Our youngest members are around 10 and the oldest ever reached 90. There are around 60 of us who meet here regularly, but due to our age there are fewer and fewer players every day!” Sioupas laughed. The hall has American pool and French billiards tables and serves drinks and basic snacks, from 09:00 to 02:00 daily.
• 53 Dimitrakopoulou St.
NEW AGE HEALTH
Next to Mister 100 is a store that attests to Athens’ newfound health-conscious lifestyle – an organic food supplier called Green Store that opened four years ago, specializing mainly in Greek organic and health foods, cosmetics and supplements. There is a similar store at the bottom of Parthenonos Street, while a few grocery stores in the area are also creating a health food section, or sell select, packaged Greek organic foods.
• 57 Dimitrakopoulou St.
TAKE ME HOME & DRINK ME
I walked one street up, to Veikou, which is Koukaki’s main thoroughfare, and went to En Fiali, a liquor store with a unique attraction. Namely, it offers a choice of 15 wines produced by highly respected winemakers – such as Semeli, Santo and Rouvalis – which it sells in unbottled form for a third of the price. Owner Giorgos Hatzitheodorou, who’s been running the place since 1998, has a penchant for Japanese whisky and sells a variety of them, including last year’s World Whiskies Award winner Yamazaki. High quality Greek and foreign wines, spirits, designer chocolate, and regional snacks are also on sale.
• 36 Veikou St.
PUT THE NEEDLE ON THE RECORD
One very recent arrival (just a few months ago) is Amberola, a tiny store packed with boxes of vinyl records and a small sofa on which several hulking men sporting tattoos and black T-shirts were seated. Amberola sells records, some hard to find or rare, from all over the world. It also makes T-shirts featuring bands, with a strong focus on the Greek hip-hop scene (especially Active Member).
• 12 Zinni St.
A little further along is a worthwhile stop for any parent with children up to 12-years-old, the Emotions Museum of Childhood.
Housed in an attractive neoclassical building, the museum organizes workshops, seminars and classes for kids and parents, as well as performances and interactive exhibitions, all focused on helping kids better understand and deal with their emotions.
• 56 Tzami Karatasou and 7 Karatza streets