With so many businesses shut down for now, the noise of new construction and renovation is that much louder in downtown Athens, as central boutique hotels, cafés and food service businesses reinvent themselves.
The change is already apparent on Lekka Street. Here we find Marketta, a small, colorful bistro serving sandwiches and salads, as well as two new hotels – one is finished and the other’s nearly there – and the popular café-bar Peek a Bloom, which is undergoing a radical makeover that will give it more outdoor seating.
While we’re stuck indoors, a new hot spot is emerging on and around Praxitelous Street. When we’re allowed out again, this will be the new place to go, the new “downtown.” The new tenants of old establishments are here at an auspicious moment, catching the historical commercial district at the start of its transformation. With the central market at their feet and in a neighborhood characterized by a patchwork of small pedestrianized streets and few vacant tenancies, they aren’t afraid of a destructive wave of mass development, like that which struck Aghia Irini Square a few years ago. Those that have survived – emotionally and financially – and that have been able to invest during these difficult months have planted a seed that will grow to full fruition later, when tourists return to Athens, when people can move around freely and when we’re all healthy and safe.
These businessmen and women promise high-quality products and services in the same spaces they occupy across a “new” district that stretches from Syntagma to Monastiraki. We wish them all a good relaunch – whenever this may be.
GASTONE – Meat and more
The work was finished and the prep in the kitchen for opening day was 80% done, filling the dining area with the aromas of good food. Gastone, the Cookoovaya team’s latest project, was scheduled to open on Thursday, November 12th, but then came the lockdown on restaurants and bars in response to a fresh spike in coronavirus cases. In a prime location and headed by Kleomeni Zournatzi with a staff of 14, this new eatery has had to put things on hold until restrictions are lifted.
What can we expect when that day comes? It’s basically a fancy version of an American diner adapted to Greek reality. The people behind the project are already confident that it will take off. It’s not laid out like a kafeneio or a taverna, but the convenient counter in the middle and the tables with good views of the action outside gives it a sense of familiarity. It will be open all day, so we can stop in for a glass of wine and a nibble on some delicious charcuterie and fresh bread, or maybe a beer and a black pig hotdog, or perhaps a meeting with friends or business partners.
Meat will be the star on a menu that’s divided into three parts: mains, such as choice cuts from the grill, rotisserie items, burgers and sandwiches; delicious sides like wild mushrooms, seasonal legumes and salads; and a selection of freshly cut cheeses and cold meats. As in the team’s other restaurants, local products hold pride of place: creamy galotyri cheese from Karditsa, mortadella and sausages made from Greek black pigs, beef from Greek Steppe cattle and dairy products from Naxos, to name but a few. The wine list will comprise around 80 lesser-known labels from important Greek wineries, while there will also be cocktails, both signature and classics. The bar will be run by Kostas Papakonstantinou, while Kyriaki Molyndri promises excellent service on the floor.
Info: Corner of Praxitelous and Aghiou Markou Streets
JUICY GRILL –Legendary burgers coming to town
Almost everyone has a friend or acquaintance who has stood in line for a burger from Juicy Grill; yes, I confess, I, too, have been among them. Fans of the classic treat have it high up in their ranking of Athenian burger joints. The first Juicy Grill location was opened in the northern suburb of Holargos in 2011 by Dimosthenis Kouvarakis, a professional with the experience of a three-year stint in the United States and a trove of insider knowledge acquired since childhood at the family butcher stall in Piraeus’ central food market to draw upon. He knows the job and the industry, and he also knows meat, which explains how his small venture became so popular. In 2019, he expanded into a much bigger space in the same area. “It was something I needed to do; I owed it to my diners for all the hours they had waited in line or the times when we simply could not serve more people because of limited space,” Kouvarakis says.
The first franchise outlet, in Lebanon, is already a fact and while Kouvarakis was uncomfortable with the idea of expanding further, the possibility of a great partnership in a new neighborhood soon brought him around. The newest Juicy Grill, for which Kouvarakis has partnered up with Lefteris Georgopolos (of Clumsies, Odori, Theory Bar and more), has opened in central Athens, on the pedestrianized strip of Agion Theodoron Square. The space used to be an all-day café-bar, so the infrastructure is there, but the rent is on a completely different scale in central Athens than it is in Holargos. However, thanks to the amazing brand he’s developed with Juicy Grill and to the privileged location, the risk is not that great. “The neighborhood is on the cusp of development, and we have a lot of faith in the people in the center and in Athens’ dynamic. Mainly though, I feel confident because I know that my food is not junk,” Kouvarakis says.
What does he mean by this? That everything on the menu is fresh and prepared in-house, from the chopped beef to the hand-cut potatoes, the 15 different salads and the marinades, and that all the meat dishes are carefully cooked to order. The new restaurant serves around 18 different burgers, some from the old menu of the first Juicy Grill and some new ones, like the new breaded chicken burger with a pizza-like tomato sauce, mozzarella and pepperoni. There will also be cocktails from a list designed by Vassilis Kyritsis. “Even though I’d prefer to serve properly,” Kouvarakis says, “at the table, the situation is, unfortunately, still very fluid. So, the idea is that we start working only with takeaway and delivery so that we have time to adapt to the tempo in the kitchen and are ready for the grand opening when restrictions on dining are lifted.”
Info: 7 Aghion Theodoron Square
DOPIOS – Modern meze under an old plane tree
“Trends change, and going out early has already taken off. Just think how quickly after-office drinks became a thing in Greece,” says Petros Pitsilis, explaining why his latest project is slated to stay open all day. Seeking to introduce themselves to a new clientele – the downtown crowd and tourists visiting Athens – Pitsilis and his partner, award-winning chef Christoforos Peskias, acquired what had been a successful restaurant near Klafthmonos Square.
What this duo, renowned from other successful ventures like Balthazar, have planned is a meze restaurant for tomorrow. Dopios, located behind a large plane tree on pedestrianized Skouleniou Street, manages nonetheless to have a fine view of the Church of Aghioi Theodoroi, one of the city’s foremost Byzantine monuments, currently undergoing restoration. Once the scaffolding is removed and the plane tree sprouts its new leaves, I can think of few better locations to enjoy a glass of tsipouro and a selection of cured fish and other seafood delights created by Peskias.
The fact that the space had been a restaurant was a significant advantage in terms of the investment and time needed to get the new venture off the ground. As we speak, work is under way to ensure that it can open when restrictions on dining are lifted. The menu comprises classic Greek meze with a modern twist added by the chef, and ranges from modern vegetable stews to pickled items. Good value for money is a key philosophy, while alcoholic beverages will be limited to bottled Greek wines and spirits. “I rediscovered Greek pulses grown from old native seeds, forgotten varieties, during the lockdown. These lend themselves to some top-quality dishes, which are also Greek-style vegan,” explains Peskias.
Info: 1 Skouleniou
THE MAKERS – Delicious delights in a concept store
If you’re hungry for a healthy brunch, you’ll soon be able to sit down to a nutritious bowl of chia seeds, vegan yoghurt and fresh fruit, or to a plate stacked high with the special waffle surprise If you’re a food or hospitality industry professional, you’ll be able to book a meeting with brand experts who can help design your business’s new image and, while you’re here, pick up that organic cotton apron that beckoned to you from the window. The Makers, soon to open on Praxitelous Street, will be the flagship store of a Greek company of the same name that specializes in work uniforms, linens and textile furnishing made entirely in Greece of recyclable organic cotton.
The story of The Makers began when fashion designer Teti Charitou – who has an haute couture studio in the upscale district of Kolonaki – teamed up with her good friend and former fellow business management major at the Athens University of Economics and Business, Giorgos Barlas. Barlas already had many years of experience in the wholesale apparel and linen business, so it made sense to combine their significant knowledge of textiles and their business acumen to create this brand.
“We love downtown Athens and believe that it’s looking at many years of growth ahead. We want to be a part of that, so we decided to open our first store there,” says Charitou. Her significant other, chef Ilias Stavropoulos, will be serving light meals all day long, much as he did at Me in Kolonaki. The small but functional kitchen area of The Makers concept store will produce healthy and delicious dishes all day, including nutritious bowls and light meals, prepared without excess fats and with no animal proteins. For coffee, they have teamed up with another local brand, Wisecup, but will also be serving caffeine-free beverages and smoothies. Don’t leave without at least trying on an apron. Info: 37 Praxitelous
LINOU SOUMBASIS & SIA – Back to the classics
With a name that feels distinctly retro, Myrsini Linou and Giorgos Soumbasis’ new venture in Psyrri is inspired by the idea of going back to basics and to a time when the name of a business was invariably the name of the owner. “What you were selling was you, your name,” explains Linou. The two friends – both with careers in food and business – have set up their partnership in an old two-story commercial space that gets natural light all day long. Here will be the offices of their creative firm, with a publishing agency and a music label upstairs, and a homemade candle store and a restaurant downstairs. The venture has two addresses because the space opens out onto both trendy Melanthiou Street and its parallel road, Kalamida Street.
How did the partners decide to put all this under one roof? “My forebears came from Smyrna, where they made and sold candles,” says Linou.”A candle is a symbol of commitment, from me to you. And the notion of giving is also represented by food, of course. The food we will serve is rooted in tradition, but we’re interested mainly in presenting new recipes.”
Soumbasis notes that half the cooks in the kitchen will be Italian, so they will be preparing quite a few dishes they were taught by their grandmothers, like green olives stuffed with minced meat. “These are local recipes which, for some reason, have not survived and are not served at other restaurants,” he says. The menu, which will change at regular intervals, will follow a similar pattern to a regular family meal plan in that it will always have a stew made with seasonal vegetables, a seafood option, and a good Sunday roast on the day. The wines will mostly be naturals and will also be served by the glass. The only decorative touches will be a candle at each table, and an abundance of aluminum. Info: 2 Melanthiou and 9 Kalamida
This article was first published in Greek in Kathimerini’s Sunday magazine K.