Athens is a city of 5 million souls, and it seems that there is one restaurant for every four of them. Traveling around the city we encountered thousands of typical Greek restaurants, serving gyro, souvlaki, kabobs, and all the other standard Greek fare. In fact, they all had the same menu items, just like the Greek diners in New York. (Every diner in the Big Apple uses the same kitchen. It’s under the city and delivers the food through an underground network.) On one street in Athens, there were probably 25 Greek restaurants side by side. And every one had a greeter outside to entice you to eat at their place. Other than Greek restaurants, we only found one Chinese restaurant and one sushi bar. There are no Italian restaurants, Mexican, French or German. But you can find an American fast food outpost wherever you look.
Among the Greek restaurants, despite the similar menus, the quality varied from OK to very good. With only one exception, (more about that later) at every place we ate, the service was great, and the people were very friendly and accommodating. In fact, they remembered us when we walked by the next day. Made us wonder if we over-tipped them.
Greek wine was served almost exclusively and it varied from mediocre to pretty good. During the week prior to our arrival, Tom discovered ouzo, and now he drinks it exclusively. After two weeks of this diet, he can discern the quality and alcohol content from the first sip, often complaining that the volume was less than the standard 40%. This justified his need to order additional glasses of the licorice-tasting booze.
We were fortunate to experience two extraordinary gourmet Greek restaurants. The first we stumbled upon while walking down a side street when it started to rain. It was called Mazi and it was so good and so unusual, we went back the next night to try some of their other unique dishes, like the braised beef cheeks with sweetbreads. Every element of every dish was made with ingredients or preparation that we’ve never had before. We asked to meet the chef, who turned out to be a young, good looking guy who became emotional when we shared our reaction to his creativity.
The second exceptional dining experience was Kuzina. This gem was recommended by our friend and neighbor Greg Birbil who is a colleague of the owner, Aris. The restaurant, which seats 150, features a rooftop dining deck that faces the nearby Acropolis. Here again, the cuisine was gourmet, the service extremely attentive, and the vistas beautiful.
As mentioned above, I must share the one negative dining experience we had. The restaurant, which was next door to Mazi was small with beautiful antique decorative accessories. The hostess/waitress warmly welcomed us and offered us an oversized six-seat table instead of the small four seater. She poured water and made some dining suggestions which we declined. We asked about sharing an appetizer sampler, but she told us it was only enough for one person. So we told her to bring two and we would share a small portion each. The hostess was not happy with our skimpy request, and that’s when the pleasant lunch went off a cliff. After the appetizer, Tom and Maggie asked to share a small Greek Salad and I ordered the appetizer portion of meatballs. Sara told the now miffed hostess from Hell that she didn’t want anything else. This triggered the poor waitress to develop severe menstrual cramps. Her reaction prompted Sara to get up, leave restaurant and take a walk. Our appetizers were unceremoniously dumped on the table as the waitress rushed to the bathroom to deal with an onslaught of constipation.
As soon as we finished our food, we asked for a check. But then a group of four people came in who were obviously friends of the chronically ill waitress. Her mood brightened and she spent an inordinate amount of time socializing with them. She then went to the open kitchen and began preparing their salads, while we sat waiting. When she passed by, she ignored my second request for the check. Tom decided to drop a glass on the floor to get her attention, but I firmly rejected that idea. He then got up and blocked the entrance to the kitchen demanding the check.
His two-foot height difference seriously intimidated the poor, medically challenged woman who was now dealing with waves of nausea and a gallbladder attack, not to mention the arthritic paralysis in her hands as she tried to add up the bill from her notes. She told Tom it was 29.70 euros. When he handed her a credit card, she sniffed that the charge system was down and we had to pay cash. Tom handed her 30 Euros and waited for the 30 cents change. There was no way we were leaving a tip, not even 30 cents.