Petros Zisou

Petros Zisou cares little for the Instagrammable. Instead, the Athens bartender prizes substance over style. It’s evident at Naif, his corner cafe in the Neos Kosmos neighbourhood where customers can find good coffee, an all-day breakfast menu, carefully selected wines, good cocktails and good chow from morning until late. (At the time of publishing this guide, he’s opening a second, more wine-focussed venue across the street.) And it’s evident in his hit-list of Athenian bars and night-spots that steer clear of the predictable and the also-rans.

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The Shift in Athens’ Bar Scene

Everything in society has changed in the last 10 years. Sooner or later, change starts to show in everything: the choice of jobs, the way people live and the way they choose to spend their income. I moved to Athens from Larissa, my hometown, in 2000 and it didn’t take me long to start hanging around bars. Things looked completely different than they do now. Around 2004 at the peak of my going out, people typically ordered a vodka-lemon, a glass of wine or a beer, and no one was asking, “What is this beer I’m drinking?” The only thing they cared about was the genre of music, to have as many drinks as they could and not to go home before the sun started to come up, regardless of what they had the next day. And everyone was happy. When the crisis hit, things started to change. When you charge €10 for a drink, people start actually tasting and questioning. They inevitably become more selective. Besides the crisis, changes were happening on a global scale, and it was starting to affect all of Europe. The bar scene was no exception in reflecting the effects. The hipster movement surfaced in aesthetics and in conduct. You started to hear things like, “What the hell are you drinking you peasants? I’m not drinking your cheap wine.” If you manage such change in a healthy way you find that it is in fact a good thing. It raises the bar on quality, it empowers anyone doing a good job and it also empowers the consumer. It all depends on how you express things. What I mean is to not make a big deal out of things. Of course it is a big deal when you experience something that was made well – a good wine, a good beer, a good coffee, a good meal – but don’t make it a big deal. When you strip it down, it’s simply a glass of wine. What matters are the people involved and how these things impact their lives.

The Influence of Free Press

In 2004, free press played a big societal role among the Greek youth and dynamic consumers in general. Notable media platforms including Athens Voice and LIFO were what the locals in their 20s, 30s and 40s were listening to. If a column announced a new “steki” [an area in the city that was full of hype] you knew that that’s where everyone would be drinking for a while. A friend of mine had Magaze, one of the first openly gay bars in the centre of Athens. It was one of three bars around Plateia Agias Irinis and no one really went there. Then an editor from LIFO spent one good night and wrote about how cool the place was, and the next day it was crowded and hasn’t stopped being crowded since. The challenge was to get the attention of journalists and to then develop a relationship of mutual trust between one another. Now the “like” button stripped away that power and most of the time content is boring and inaccurate because unfortunately most people only follow the hype. They want what’s Instagrammable. There are very few single-minded people with good taste because there’s an increased focus on “bigger, faster, more” and it’s very easy to get lost on the way and lose your vision. I think the real measure of success is timelessness. The music industry was the first to endure such changes. I still listen to Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison and others that died like a 100 years ago with the same enthusiasm.

Wine Bars in Athens

As you grow older your needs change. You rarely seek a drink in the same places you dance, you can’t stand for as long as you used to and you don’t have the patience to scream over deafening music to be heard. When I go out I like to go to places with a real environment to them, where I can have a nice drink and a bite and be able to communicate with the company around me. I choose atmospheric places, regardless of whether I’m going on a date, with a group of friends or to talk business. One of my favourite spots is a wine bar called Heteroclito in the centre. It’s always crowded, but I get there early – just after the shops around it have closed – and always on a weekday. I usually order a bottle of wine, some local cheeses and a sharing plate. I choose wines based on how they’re made. I like to try something interesting. Lately I’ve been exploring younger, natural red wines. Heteroclito also has a by-the-glass leaflet that changes every month. Another wine bar with a more sophisticated food menu that’s in my neighbourhood in Pangrati is Materia Prima. It has a second smaller shop in Koukaki as well. I enjoy its outdoor seating which has a playground facing it and is always filled with children, sometimes until pretty late at night, especially in the summer.

Where to Buy Greek Wines

There is a liquor store in Kolonaki called Mr. Vertigo with a great selection of natural wines. I have a personal relationship with the guys working there. They’re really cool guys and we share similar ideas. There’s none of this highbrow wine sommelier behaviour there, I’m getting so bored of these things. Some of my favourite recent bottles are from Sklavos Wines on the island of Zakynthos. His wines are amazing. He keeps getting more and more traditional in his approach to winemaking. I also like the wines of the Tatsis brothers from the North of Greece. Iliana Malihin and Spiros Chryssos are also young guys making good wines.

The Best Cocktail Bar in Athens

For me, the best cocktail bar in Athens is Baba Au Rum. It has done an amazing job in raising the bar standards over the years. They make the best long drinks in town. The people working there are the most up to date in the bar scene and are very good at what they do. They’re professionals, so you can let them figure out what you like to drink. And if you pay €15 for it, you’re not going to regret a single euro.

Time After Time

Galaxy Bar is one of the oldest, most unique bars in Athens. The element we miss the most in our lives nowadays is romance. Galaxy has romance written all over it. You’ll fall in love at first sight because it speaks to the heart. A guy in a white shirt will serve you in a setting that has stopped in time. It’s the kind of thing that cannot be recreated. Another bar that is said to be Athens’ oldest bar is Au Revoir on 28 Octovriou Street. Like the name suggests, it feels like a blast from a Parisian past. The atmosphere is like nothing else in Athens. After 2010 you started seeing places with great cocktails, a good wine list, good bites, great glassware, but they still were flat. Everyone there feels like they’re trying to be a certain way, pretending to be happy and it seems forced to me. In these old bars, you don’t feel this. I love that. And even if I order a gin-tonic that’s average, I wouldn’t mind it because it doesn’t matter there. It’s almost the contrary. It may disturb my experience if they make me a cocktail that blows my mind. It’s like going to an under-visited Greek island, with one ship docking there per week and expecting to find pancakes for breakfast. “No one gives a fuck about your pancakes here, we’re an island with a population of 10.” Of course you’re still drinking something safe in these bars and getting your value for the money, because the vibe is like no other. These are the kinds of places I missed going to since this pandemic started. You can’t create soul, but if you do something from the soul, your outcome will reflect that. I’m a firm believer of this in everything that I do. Everyone is really smart in a physical way. It’s instinctive. They pick up on the messages you leave for them, and the messages are written all over a place.

When Cocktails and Music Come Together

When I want a vibrant bar with loud music it’s always been The 7 Jokers. It plays really good music but has very good cocktails too. I’m classic to the bone, so if a place makes an excellent Daiquiri or Margarita that’s what I’ll have in the summer. My friend Dimitris – who’s also the bartender at Naif – and I have something we call “The Daiquiri Challenge”. If you don’t drink a Daiquiri in 15 minutes, while it’s still cold, it becomes a different drink entirely. So if you chose that for the night you know you’ll be chugging all night. When it’s winter I order a Negroni. Our generation is the one that was stuck between two eras and witnessed technology changing. So the bar scene outside of the electro-forward few looks like it’s stuck in the 90s: Placebo, The Pixies, Depeche Mode, Red Hot Chili Peppers, OffSpring. Then you get your usual 90s hip-hop. Briki The Bar is a nice choice for that. We also have the after-hours culture here, mostly places frequented by those of us who work late in bars and restaurants. I’m an early bird though, I have to wake up and walk my dog, but many of the people on my team are still going strong.

A Snapshot of Street Food in Athens

During the quarantine, I discovered a small place called Meat N Roses on Ameriki Street in Kolonaki. Pork souvlaki on a stick is the natural choice for me: no bread, no potatoes. Another place I’ve been going to for the past seven years is Elvis. It has a shop in Keramikos but I go to the one in Pangrati because it’s closer to my house. I haven’t had gyros in a while but I used to always go to Kostas in Plateia Agias Irinis and oh my god, It’s amazing. There’s a street food place that’s not traditional but is possibly the best in Athens. It’s called Food Str. After a night at The Dude Bar which is also an old-time favourite for good music and cocktails, you can finish off with a nice warm soup there. It’s the best thing you can have after drinking so much. They also make really good burgers and fish and chips. There’s a place in Ilisia called Canteen Michalakopoulou. You eat really shitty things there like hot dogs and chips, but it’s an after-hours cult thing.

It’s Hip To Be (In The) Square

We also have the culture of going to plateia [town squares] for drinks in Athens. Your friends will call you and say, “meet me on this square,” and you’ll end up spending hours there doing what you would do in a bar. Plateia Theatro has a great kafeneion and there I would order tsipouro, raki or a bira. Mavilis Square is another one where you can go for drinks and a bite. There are plenty of them everywhere and they are very Athens.

Greek Microbreweries To Look For

I buy my beers from a cava in Keramikos called Ampelosofies. It has beer from all the Greek microbreweries. 10 years ago we had like 15 of them and now we have more than 150. I like Strange Brew which has a beer room in Koukaki. Noctua is also very good. I also like Septem in Evia, which is an old one and has a larger operation now, but it was one of the first serious microbreweries.

Bakers’ Delights

After a night out drinking you want some nice bread the next morning. I buy mine from Tromero Paidi in Ilisia, which was probably the first one to sell sourdough-style bread in Athens, and more recently from Kora which opened in Kolonaki and makes great bread and croissants.

My Favourite Tavernas

Everything about the restaurant culture in Greece was always more traditional. You go to a restaurant to eat and you go to a bar to drink. We’ve just started to make this transition from taverna to restaurants, and to find good drinks beyond where you expect them. When I want a completely perfect experience I go to Seychelles. I used to go there really often because it was close to my old bar. It’s still an authentic taverna that you can go to regularly, but they’re a lot more sensible about  things: they play good music, they have a good wine list and there’s always an element of surprise in the food. Everything you can order there is flawless. Another taverna I like is Laika in Keramikos. The service has its own rhythm but I don’t mind because I know everything I’m going to eat is going to be super good and I like the lively but relaxed vibe. If you want to eat fish you go to Fita. I don’t eat so much fish but the food is amazing. Everything you order there is fresh and tasty, always with an element of surprise.

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