Exploring Athens’ Counter Culture

Exploring Athens’ Counter Culture

With discerning Athenian restaurateurs honing in on the perks that come with dining at the counter, many spots are now letting solo diners and first daters have a ringside view of their  open-plan kitchens, making the drama more immersive. Tom Hall predicts that Athens’ counter culture scene is here to stay!

There are many important stops on the journey to maturity and wisdom and if you’re lucky, as I have been, you will have wiser guides along the way to help you through. I am forever thankful for an ex of mine who introduced me to the sophisticated concept of side by side dining. Early on in our relationship, I suggested booking at a certain restaurant and she asked me to see if I could get the counter, and if not, a corner table. Given my youthful terror of appearing ignorant, I snorted and replied that I was obviously going to do that. Once we knew each other a bit better and I realised that asking questions is a sign of confidence—not ignorance—I questioned her about her reasoning. She explained that two people sitting opposite each other creates a sense of tension, even conflict. Yes, you are totally focused on each other but you’re also thrust into a game of chess only with breadsticks rather than bishops. Anyone walking past a packed but still somehow lonely restaurant on Valentine’s Day will know what I mean. At a corner table, or even better, a counter top, it’s the two of you against the world, you are allies rather than combatants, facing the Singapore Slings and Cupid’s Arrows of outrageous fortune, or at least outrageous bar tabs, together. It was then that my love of counter dining was born and I took an important step towards the proper knowledge of adulthood. Counters are also perfect for the solo diner, another thing I thoroughly enjoy. You have the theatre of the bar staff preparing drinks and generally being cooler than you and sometimes even a view of the kitchen, which is for me a place of magic and wonder (having never worked in one). So what follows are three very different counters at three very different restaurants, each serving a purpose. 


Pharaoh, lunch for 1

If you’re in Athens and interested in food, wine and restaurants, it won’t be long until the name Pharaoh crops up. Much lauded, and deservedly so, the Exarchia restaurant hits the trifecta of contemporary coolness with wood fire cooking, natural wine, and vinyl. As part of the intensive research for this article I went on my own for lunch and sat at the bar on the short side of a long ‘L’. I had a wonderful view across the zinc countertop, taking in the decks, moving past the busy bar staff and into the kitchen. I had brought the solo diner’s helpmate, an appropriate book (the marvellous F. Scott Fitzgerald On Booze) but didn’t open it once given all the entertainment. One of the only issues with solo dining—an art form that I love but which some restaurants don’t get right—is that you can’t sample as much of the menu as when you’ve brought back-up orders with you. Pharaoh elegantly side-steps this issue by offering a tasting menu which, while much less fussy than the 12 course endurance tests in some places, still allows you to survey the menu at a very reasonable price (€45 when I visited). Colourful greens (if that makes sense) cooked in the wood oven had an earthy richness to them which was a lovely twist on the ubiquitous horta. Trahana with asparagus continued in the same vein with bassy woodyness to it which was highly satisfying and decidedly moreish. Another highlight was the artichoke heart with staka butter (a form of clarified sheep’s butter from Crete) and truffles. I had a series of complementary wines by the glass suggested by the bar staff, including the Retsina from Aoton which is one of my summer favourites at the moment. A lot more could be said about this wonderful restaurant but I’ll leave you with a comment from a sophisticated American friend of mine when I said I was going. She paid Pharaoh a high compliment when she said that it was a great place for a solo female diner to feel comfortable and special. That, coupled with the fact that the menu has a “cast list” of the staff, goes to show that this is a restaurant that has heart and soul as well as being very good for your stomach.

Pharaoh, Solomos 54, Athens. Tel: 210 3808412

Birdman, dinner for 2

I love Birdman; from the open grill with specialist Japanese charcoal briquettes, to the industrial chic of the decor, to the vintage amps, speakers and vinyl behind the bar. The food is marvellous and is the kind of menu that induces you—perhaps seduces you—into ordering one more plate that you really need. The only problem with Birdman is that it presents me with an impossible decision when dining alone. Do I go for the Birdman Smash, a smash burger that tastes somehow nostalgic and that several respected bon viveurs claim to be Athens’ best, or do I put together a selection of skewers from the excellent yakitori and grill menu? On your own you can’t, or at least shouldn’t, do both. For that reason alone I usually try to go to Birdman with a (chicken) wingman. The fun thing about the counter at Birdman is that you’re right in the action, the music is loud but always great so it’s not intrusive, the cocktails are flying around in front of your eyes tempting you to order “whatever that was please”. As with the other restaurants in this list there is other seating to be had, in Birdman’s case pavement seating at either end of the restaurant which means you can have a different experience if you so choose. Foodwise, apart from the aforementioned smash burger, Birdman is all about the perfectly cooked meaty cuts for me. Yakitori literally means “grilled chicken” in Japanese and at its best is a celebration of all that the bird has to offer. From the fatty, salty, beer-loving taste of kawa (chicken skin), to the magic trick of tsukune, a barbecued meatball that manages to be substantial and light simultaneously, to the rich, earthy, health giving properties of reba (livers) all of the skewers come perfectly cooked and with a thoughtful and occasionally surprising accompaniment. There are lots of other delicious morsels on the menu as well, including the grilled king oyster mushrooms which is a delicious yakitori take for the vegetarians amongst us. Drinks wise I will often pair the food with lots of ice cold Japanese beer, punctuated by a glass of cold sake at appropriate intervals but the wine and cocktail list is excellent. And I will always start the proceedings with their excellent Highball which is a whiskey based magic carpet that whisks me straight back to Tokyo whenever I drink it. 

Birdman, Voulis 35, Athens. Tel: 210 321 2800

Ntylan, a riotous feast for 5

This wonderful restaurant in the hot and getting hotter area of Kypseli was a sobering example of how far I still have to go on my journey to Greek acclimatisation. I had been excited about visiting Dylan which I had only heard about and also excited to try Ntylan which I had only read about. It was only on arrival that I realised that they were one and the same. Situated on a long pedestrian strip which would be a good place for a bar crawl, being all bars and no cars, Ntylan has a number of tables outside for parties of various sizes. Even though we were a boisterous five we opted for the counter. The restaurant’s name is a homage to two famously creative Dylan’s; Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas. Given that I am a lifelong Bob Dylan fan and that Richard Burton reading Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood is one of my favourite collections of noises, this game of cultural dominoes presaged very good things. The danger with invoking such luminaries when naming a place is that you have to be good not to suffer in the comparison. Thankfully Ntylan is. The menu is compact and all the better for it. We had a brace of vegetarians in our party who were well catered for with a zingy salad that felt like it was adding years of life expectancy, a perfectly roasted celeriac dish which was made even earthier with the addition of mushrooms and an excellent sourdough. The omnivores amongst us had already spotted a village style rustic sausage on a grill which we ended up ordering again and again. I alternated between their selection of Greek craft beers and a spicy Limniona from Oenops to try and work out which paired better with that delicious grilled sausage. Both did but I think I’ll have to revisit a few times to pick a winner. The cooking was much more sophisticated and technical than I’ve made it sound. The magic of the counter at Ntylan is that given the size and layout of the restaurant you are effectively in the kitchen with Vaggelis who’s welcoming presence bespeaks a hospitality expert who has found his calling and built a team of like minded chefs around him. They were very welcoming of our five party army causing a fuss around them but I think I might visit on my own next. A parting reflection on Ntylan, or rather a lack of reflection, is that they have replaced the bathroom mirrors with quotes from the restaurant’s namesakes so was left with a quote from Dylan Thomas on leaving: “life always offers you a second chance, it’s called tomorrow.”

Agias Zonis 38, Athens, Tel: 210 866 8899

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