Timeless French allure at Spiros and Vasilis
In a city that’s constantly hungry for new trends, and one that is becoming more exacting in its culinary standards, French cooking has survived the fads, and it is restaurants like Spiros and Vasilis that remind us just why it was so highly prized in the first place, notes Sudha Nair-Iliades.
Spiros and Vasilis has long been a bastion of all things elegant, unhurried and old-world in a shifting gastronomic landscape – for 44 years to be exact. Initially run by brothers Spiros and Vasilis, the eponymous restaurant that epitomizes classic French cuisine in Athens, is now helmed by Vasilis’ son, George Polymeris.
Located just behind the American Embassy and the Megaro Mousikis on Lachitos street, Spiros and Vasilis has been a favourite stomping ground for the culturati especially during the post-junta years – Nana Mouskouri and Demis Roussos often converged here, as did most Prime Ministers, artists Yiannis Moralis and Ornerakis proferred their aesthetic counsel, and journalists reeling from press censures under the junta dubbed it the ‘resistance restaurant’.
With vaulted 6-metre high ceilings and a wine wall that promises some of the finest Greek and international labels, the setting could be a typical Parisian bistro. The restaurant seats around 60 on the ground floor and another 30 on the first floor. But what we’d highly recommend is dining in the lush garden just across the restaurant under century-old pine trees, and the whiff of jasmine and orange blossoms on a balmy summer evening. It’s a precious little oasis, so unexpected, that it makes the dining experience all the more intimate.
The menu here continues to be fastidiously French boasting Gallic staples such as a luxuriously satisfying soupe d’oignon with chunky croutons and grated Comté, entrecote (based on the original Cafe de Paris’ highly complex, butter-based sauce recipe with over 40 different ingredients!), foie gras fait-maison, frog drumsticks in garlic butter and escargots à la Bourguignonne. It’s all wonderfully garlicky, and French, which is great if you’re into that sort of thing!
While the menu may take its lead from French traditions, the idea here is to create French food that’s free from fuss and formality. This authentic feel permeates everything from the décor to the food and the service. The menu is written in French, ditties by Jacques Brel and Piaf evoke Paris of the 60s, and although the service retains some of the French ‘comme-il-faut-ness’ with starched white tablecloths and attentive waiters, the atmosphere here makes for a warm, informal yet elegant dining experience.
From my corner table, I watched as George Polymeris interacted with his clients, most of whom asked after his father. Highlighting the strong sense of proprietorship the clientele have for their restaurant, Polymeris adds, “Some of the regulars have been coming here for so long that at first, I felt that I was almost intruding in their space. Its only over the past two years that I have realized just how powerful the history of this restaurant is.”
He adds, “In fact, I practically grew up here. The restaurant was part of our house. Our memories are intrinsically tied to this space. We are a family restaurant not only in terms of ownership but also in terms of our customer base. When my clients tell me that they came here years ago with their grandparents, I’m humbled by the role the restaurant has played in forging these family memories.”
But the restaurant scene in Athens has changed dramatically from when Spiros and Vasilis started out. Then, there were around 10 good restaurants in Athens – mainly Greek and a couple of French ones. Since then, the culinary scene of Athens has changed with fusion restaurants flaunting eclectic menus catering to young, adventurous Greek epicures and sophisticated tourists tired of the ‘moussaka-horiatiki’ formula.
Polymeris concurs, “The Greek consumer today is better informed than the diners we had 40 years ago. He knows how he wants his meat cooked, he dares to experiment with new tastes, pairs his wine with food, looks for more specialized products and tastes, looks for dishes with a healthy approach. When the customer is knowledgeable, we feel good, because that means he can recognize good quality.”
There are so few of the old school restaurants, one of those great holdouts that harken back to the days of traditional French recipes in comfortably posh surroundings, Spiros and Vasilis reminds us just why we love French cuisine so much.
Lachitos 5, Kolonaki, Tel. 210. 723.7575