Stoa Bolani: Exploring Athens’ Small Arcade

In the heart of Athens, a vibrant arcade hosts a mix of stores, eateries, and bars with a unique atmosphere.


I’m standing under a sign with retro-style lettering at the entrance to Stoa Bolani, which is located at 7 Voulis Street. The famous chocolates and golden ribbon-adorned boxes of the Aristokratikon bakery, which first opened its doors in 1928 on Voukourestiou Street and moved several times before settling here, draw a constant stream of patrons.

Just across the street is Barreldier, which has been open since 2014. It’s the second sentinel of the arcade, with its heaters on outside, its classic cocktails (some aged in small barrels above the bar), and the warm glühwein that’s served during the day this time of year along with two other festive cocktails. This pair sets the tone in a neighborhood that emerged due to the need for more space as the city’s population grew. Shops began to open in the passageways and arcades that were built in townhouse basements. The arcade, which is currently decked out in Christmas lights, has been a hive of activity in recent years from early morning until late at night, with eateries and stores coexisting harmoniously.

This is the subject of our conversation with Katerina Grapsa, the owner of Diplous Pelekis. Her grandmother, the painter Florentini Kaloutsi, first opened the store in 1925 behind the church of Saint George Karytsis, selling curtains, tablecloths, and loom-woven fabrics, before she and her mother took over and focused on more decorative objects. Even though she moved the shop there in 2004, she remembers how the arcade used to be before then. “It has always appealed to me. 

Avlos, a well-known record store, and Casper, a children’s clothing shop that people still remember, were both located here,” she says while I look through the handmade Christmas ornaments and jewelry on the shelves. “There were shops downstairs too, like Manesis’s, who repaired expensive lighters,” she adds, pointing out that this used to be a commercial arcade before the cafes and bars moved in. 

 

Pelagia Kontzoglou, owner of Sokolata 56, which is next to the stairs leading to the lower level (now unused), also mentions the repairman who fixed gold and silver Dunhill lighters “underground.” She first opened her chocolate shop in another arcade before ending up here in 2017 after many adventures. Today, the 42 different varieties of chocolate melting in their pots have a loyal following. A taste of the bitter chocolate served in a retro cup is enough to understand why. “I love the arcades; that’s where I open my shops,” she says. “I like this one because it has many different types of small stores and hangouts.”

The crowd milling around while I take a few warm sips confirms this. Low Profile, a bar that moved here in 2014 from Lykavittou Street, bringing with it a great selection of Scottish, Irish, American, and Japanese whiskies and its signature jazz music, is another popular destination.

A few steps away, the tiny Cicchetto Cantina does brisk business with the lunch crowd. Workers from nearby offices and casual shoppers stop here for cicchetti, small tapas prepared behind the counter by Vasilis Mitrakos. Keen on establishing his own place, he visited Venice with his wife, Irene Stavrou, in search of fresh concepts and sources of inspiration to incorporate into their own creations. From 10:00 to 22:00, they spread various delicacies on thin slices of bread from Takis’s bakery, including marinated anchovies, pastirma, and spicy tomato paste from Istanbul, as well as cheeses and cold cuts from Greece and Italy. The tapa with black truffle paste, arugula, Metsovone cheese, and Milano salami, and the one with gorgonzola, mortadella, and pistachio are particular highlights.

One of the more recent arrivals here is the 35N Cretan distillery boutique from Rethymno, located right across the way. On its shelves, you’ll find all their bottled tsikoudia products, which you can taste before you buy, including the single-varietal ones made from Syrah (which I love) and the ones from Muscat of Spina and Malvasia di Candia Aromatica, both particularly aromatic. The aged version is an excellent way to cap off a festive meal.

Since 2016, the Madras tea house has also found a home in the arcade, next to the Evaggelidis family shop with its famous fountain pens. Its metal boxes contain black, green, and white teas, as well as various herbal blends. This time of year, many customers leave with a bag of Christmas tea flavored with orange, cinnamon, cloves, raisins, and almonds. Teapots, cups, strainers, and everything else needed to make and enjoy a hot beverage can also be found on the shelves.

If you prefer coffee, Kaya, located directly opposite, serves one of the best espressos found in the center of Athens. 

You can sip on a quality espresso at its busy bar at the end of the arcade, while taking in the festive decorations of 42 Barstronomy and Mexican bar/restaurant Tekila in the Kolokotroni 3 courtyard.

However, instead of leaving that way and going past the Kalogirou store around the corner (a beloved meeting point for generations of Athenians), I retrace my steps in order to pick up some chocolate-covered apricots from Aristokratikon. On the way, I happen to run into Barreldier co-owner and head bartender Mario Basso, who goes inside Takouni Express with two elegant glasses in hand before heading back to his bar. “Don’t they deserve a couple of shots?” he says with a laugh. 

Apparently, working next door to his bar has its perks. “If all of these shops were outside, lined up along the street, we wouldn’t have formed the same relationships; but we’re all inside this half-circle that is both inside and outside, so it’s something that has happened naturally. The arcade is like a little neighborhood,” he explains.



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