The first night in Athens we were sticky and jaded having just flown in from Spain on an evening hop. The Vueling flight was perfectly fine for a cheapie and the cab driver was exceptionally friendly and informative taking particular pride in all the ‘new’ construction; buildings and roads set in place years earlier for the 2004 Olympics. We wove through them before penetrating the mountain tunnels that brought us to the ‘old’ streets of a city more familiar from our last visit many, many years ago. Settled into the room, after an extravagant shower, we edged our noses out into the darkening streets. We walked a few rough-guttered blocks. Nothing immediately winked at us for food and drink, so we retreated.
In the foyer, a sign we’d missed: ‘Secret Roof Garden’. It seemed both safe and tempting.
The sky was perfect. A lovely evening, we murmured and were assured it was the first in many days. Lucky us. In the fading light over the hedged parapet we could see the Acropolis and the Parthenon glowing golden, not quite close enough to touch, the new sections slightly paler in colour attended by construction cranes.
In a comfortable and expansive layout, the menus were quickly presented by our waitress, more Brigitte Bardot than Nana Mouskouri. Who’s doing better than us, we thought, as we prepared to go for it. Soft mounds of delightfully delicate amusements to start. The bread! Like a good baguette but Hellenic. Dipping sauces, fresh herbed tomato, anchovies and tingly fish mousse. On to the serious octopus, shrimps, aromatic lamb and meatballs too, why not! Alpha beer and bottles of the local white. Refined and elegant. A long way from those early carafes of retsina. The maître’d impeccably suited, and coiffed catches our mood and brushes a respectful hand on my shoulder. Welcoming smile. Genuine. Perfectly judged. We were obviously having so much fun they brought us a complimentary selection of desserts. Can’t identify them all but each a gem of presentation and flavor.
This is the kind of experience you’d dress up for at home, but we were on holidays feeling slightly cheeky, respectful but loosish. One of the great meals, we murmured as we returned to our room.
We move right along to the next night, having spent the day exploring the Plaka and distressed to find fine memories swamped by a Luna Park jammed with garish souvenir shops overwhelming the quiet tavernas … those are now fronted by menu-wielding touts.
But we have spotted a gem in a side street beside the new Acropolis Museum. Walking in the morning we saw Mamma preparing a mound of bright green leaves, while Poppa was building the coals and placing his spits of meats, including a whole lamb. Yes, just like the old days we hope, and it is.
Our hostess Jennifer, in an accent from the midwest of America, invites us to visit the counter to choose our food. A huge bowl of tzatziki with shreds of cucumber and slurps of good oil. Basket of bread. Roast lamb and chunky chips. Best ever moussaka with a hint of cinnamon and ground cloves.
Salad is cut to order, the slab of feta on top would crush a man. The tomatoes are gnarled and misshapen and wouldn’t sell in a smart supermarket, but the flavours are mouthfilling, rich and ripe as we remember. A jug of white and a jug of red. Who’s doing better than us? We chat to Jennifer, she is married to the son of the house. They take turns to mind the kids while his mother and father do all the cooking. Our evening is not only memorable but startlingly cheap.
We go back there the following night when Jennifer introduces us to spinach rolls, beef with tomato and eggplant, stuffed zucchini is rich and lemony.
So there you go. Athens modern and refined or traditional and homely. Can’t go wrong with either, really.
The Secret Roof terrace is at the Hotel Divani Palace Acropolis. www.divaniacropolishotel.com
The taverna is To Kati Allo (What’s Cookin’) at Hatzichristou 12, Makrigianni
You expected a website?