The best, saddest little taverna in Athens is on Astiggos Street, on the far side of the Monastiraki Flea Market. It is called Kallipateira and it is owned by a married couple, Yiannis and Maria, who run front of house and the kitchen, respectively.
I visited Kallipateira three times over the course of my five days in the capital: the perfect number, my experience has taught me, for establishing oneself as a regular without quite overstaying one’s welcome. I ate there on my first afternoon in town, on the morning of my first ouzo-inspired hangover two days later, and on the evening after the general election, my last before flying out. Over the course of my visits, I not only ate some of the best food in town — I recommend the anchovies and the country sausage — but also got to know Yiannis, Maria and their Romanian waiter, Akis, all three of whom are watching in horror as the country and, more importantly, their livelihoods implode before them.
Akis has lived in Athens for eight years and was relieved by New Democracy’s victory a week ago. Like most New Democracy voters I met in Greece, his support for the party was mainly strategic, having less to do with its platform than with keeping its main opponent, Syriza, from achieving victory. But, again like most New Democracy voters I met, he was less concerned by what Syriza might do if it came to power than he was by what Europe might do in the same event. And he doesn’t think the world will have to wait very long to see what that might be.
“I am happy with the result, but it won’t last long,” he said. “We are delaying the inevitable.”
“A Syriza victory?” I asked. “No,” Akis said, “though that will happen in four or five months. I am talking about the return of the drachma.”
I asked him if he would return to his hometown of Suceava in north-eastern Romania if Greece was to leave the eurozone. “No,” he said. “Things are bad in Greece, but they are very bad back home.”
Former Romanian prime minister Emil Boc stepped down in February this year following Athens-like street protests against austerity measures, including pubic sector wage cuts of 25% and a pension freeze, that were imposed after the country accepted a €20 billion life-line from the IMF and EU in 2009. “Believe it or not,” Akis said, “but things are actually better for me in Greece regardless of what happens here.”
The only thing he is worried about, he told me, is losing his job. At the exact moment that the country is most in need of tourist dollars, the once steady flow of foreigners through the taverna’s doors has all but slowed to a trickle. The rembetika band that was playing outside on my second visit, during what should have been the early afternoon lunch rush, was playing only to Yiannis and a friend he was having coffee with.
“Three years ago,” Akis said, “we couldn’t have talked like this. I would have been too busy.” Could you lower your prices? “They are already lower than at places with Acropolis views, and we use much better ingredients than those restaurants. They’re the only ones that get any business any more. If we lower our prices, we will not make a profit.”
“Are you making a profit now?” I asked. “Not every day,” he said.
Maria emerged from the kitchen to say hello and to tell me, in her broken English, what parts of Greece my dishes originated from. Like Akis, she would not usually have time to do this, but, with the three or so parties in the taverna already eating, she too had time on her hands.
“I wanted to tell you that your food is the best I have had in Athens,” I said. “Oh, thank you,” Maria smiled and, to my surprise, sat down opposite me. She placed her palms flat on the table and leaned in conspiratorially. Her eyes were tired and sad.
“It is very difficult,” she said. “My husband and I do not know what to do. Nobody comes here any more. They have all gone.”
“Are you worried you might have to close?” I asked. She shook her head. “How can we close? We have owned this restaurant for many years. We cannot do anything else. It is very difficult.”
“I’m very sorry,” I said, and then added again, “well, I wanted you to know that your food is the best I’ve eaten in Athens”.
She said something in Greek and looked as though she was about to cry. “I do not know how to …” she began and waved Akis over. She said something to him and he translated.
“She wants to cook something for you on the house because of your comments,” he said. “She says they have made her very happy.” Maria nodded, looking at me eagerly.
I didn’t know what to say. It was not the first time I was offered something on the house in Greece — the level of generosity one encounters on a day to day basis there is unprecedented in my experience, especially for a country in the depths of recession — but this was the first time it wasn’t just an aperitif or something of that nature. Maria actually wanted to go back into the kitchen and cook something up from scratch for me.
I asked Akis if things were really as bad as Maria was saying. “Worse,” he said. “Things are much worse.”
“Then I don’t think I should accept anything on the house,” I said. “Thank her for me, but …” He began to laugh. “It’s nothing,” he said. “I will bring you some dessert.”
“I don’t think you should,” I said. “Trust me,” Akis said. “Things can’t get any worse than they have already gotten. A piece of cake will not destroy what has already been destroyed here.”