Beat the Heat in Athens: Welcome to the Jungle

You might have learned the word “meze,” but do you know “ba mee,” “pinchos” and “shiso”?

When temperatures rise to unbearable levels, you can follow the Athenians and escape to the islands, or, you can embrace the humidity and high temperatures to go totally tropical. A new wave of tropics-inspired bars and restaurants, paying tribute to even hotter and stickier parts of the world, have sprung up across Athens in recent years. This summer, the trend is in full, exotic bloom.

Bartenders dressed in Hawaiian shirts serve drinks with little plastic monkeys swinging from the straws, while brightly colored tchotchkes add to the birthday party-like happy feeling. But the popularity of these tropical establishments isn’t all due to the garnishes and the décor. Most also serve high-quality food and drinks, whether painstakingly authentic representations of tropical cuisines, or more experimental. Some import ingredients from across the world. Others use local produce in new, unexpected ways. Providing a touch of exotic whimsiness, they’re designed to elevate that tingling vacation feeling of summer nights. While they draw their inspiration from varying countries and continents, they’re united by the decorative palm fronds, and flavors native to the tropics, such as juicy and sweet fruits, mild coconut, and popping lemongrass, chili and coriander.

To get an immediate sense of the trend, go for street food. Madame Phu Man Chu (36 Praxitelous & 4 Skouleniou) serves Vietnamese dishes perfect for a quick bite between drinks. We love the spring rolls, which are crunchy and delicious, rolled up in mint and lettuce, and the lemongrass and chili marinated beef skewers. Other street food favorites are Los Loros (14 Xenofontos & Nikis), famous for their arepas and empanadas, Taqueria Maya (10 Petraki), where tacos are made with house-made corn tortillas, and their neighbor, Poké Hawaiian Sushi (7 Petraki), serving poke bowls with rice, raw fish, fruit and veggies.

More Hawaiian food is served at Big Kahuna‘s restaurants in Keramikos and Halandri (Keramikos: 42 Salaminos, Halandri: 15 Kolokotroni), which are closed in August but will open again in September. At the former, garage doors of an old car workshop open up to the reveal an exotic oasis. Out of the open kitchen come burgers made with a wide selection of patties, from vegetarian options to beef and chicken, ostrich and crocodile, and fun appetizers like crispy coconut-breaded pineapple nuggets with sweet chili sauce, all inspired by the cuisines of Hawaii, Latin America, the Caribbean islands and Asia. Everything gets washed down with sweet and sour cocktails and Mexican soft drinks.

In the nearby Gazi neighborhood, chef Salad “Den” Simla makes his own delicious noodles at the newly opened Thai Zab (22 Dekeleon), already frequented by the city’s Thai community. Try the Ba Mee (egg noodles) tossed with a few drops of fish sauce and some chili from the condiment set. If you ask, it can be prepared with fresh crab. Aside from noodles, the Kaeng Phet Pet Yang (red curry with roast duck) is a great choice.

At Caribbean-inspired Dos Gardenias (21 Ivis) in the Psyrri neighborhood, the food is all about surf & turf. To the sound of Latin tunes, they serve pinchos, barbecue, and their specialty, paella, which is cooked on the street every evening, and for lunch on weekends.

For a more upscale dining experience, choose Balthazar (27 Tsocha), housed in a 19th century building with a lush green garden in Ampelokipoi. Here, tropical fusion meets fine dining at the hands of renowned chef Christoforos Peskias. Try the sushi and our favorite, the carpaccio with sea bass, sea urchin, Greek bottarga, passionfruit, olive oil and bread. We also come here for some of the best Piña Coladas in town, and their Exotic Old Fashioned.

For more after dinner drinks, you can’t go wrong at Baba au Rum (6 Kleitiou), which is currently listed as the world’s 22nd best bar. Rum-based cocktails are their specialty, so it’s worth starting with a classic Zombie or Mai Tai. Their bestselling drink is the Spicy Baba, featuring aged rum from Trinidad and Tobago, ginger and berries. For a low ABV option, try the Pearl Fishers, with amaro, exotic spices and cherry blossom.

At three-month old bar Under the Palm (Praxitelous), the tropical theme is tastefully understated, yet still undeniable; the bar sits in the middle of the room, meant to resemble a beach bar, with a wooden palm above it, and the cocktails are decidedly summery. Once a week, local designers host pop-ups here, offering guests a chance to shop for things like beach bags and swim suits, cocktail in hand. We tried the Super Goofy, with the house’s rum blend, selected citrus and caramel, and the deliciously sour Widow’s Kiss, with vodka, chili, lime, passion fruit, cranberry bitters and mandarin mousse.

On the other end of the spectrum design-wise is Juan Rodriguez Bar (3 Pallados) in Psyrri, which looks like a speakeasy housed in a pirate ship stranded in a jungle. Over the top in every way, there’s no way to avoid the party mood here. From the brand-new cocktail list, bartender and co-owner Armelina Antonaropoulou recommends the La Pitanda, with vodka, cucumber liqueur, elderflower liqueur, lime, ginger and honeydew, and the Chica Celoza, with gin, chamomile, chartreuse, cherry liqueur, lime, bitters, and pineapple puree.

End the night at Tiki Bar (15 Falirou & Makrygianni), a local favorite, where Giannis Petris mixes classic and signature cocktails packed with tropical flavors. Try the Piscoteque, with Peruvian Pisco Kappa, elderflower and shiso bitters, and the bartenders favorite, the Painkiller, with white rum, pineapple, orange, coconut cream and nutmeg.

This text was first published as part of “Beat the Heat”, an article published in Greece Is Athens, Summer 2019 Edition.

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