Walking just one block on my way to catch a taxi, I have witnessed the full gamut of the coffee cult available to the coffee fiend in Athens. I see two women carrying those handy cardboard cases to haul four plastic domed containers full of frappe. A little bit further, an old retiree dangles a koboloi on a table set outside the curb and complains, “kale re Panayiott to eferes to cafe?” (Hey, Panayiotti did you bring my coffee?) On her cell phone outside the fourno, aromatic wiuth the cinnamon sugar cookies and country bread, a blonde dyed skinny chick yells, “Is the coffee ready so I can come over?”
A few steps down a shop keeper peeps her head into a neighbor’s boutiques door, “to kafe sou,” she hand delivers the cold brew more than half which clings in froth. Pedestrians test the density of foam as they poke thin plastic straws into the mixture.
Stores will be closed all over Athens; even in the height of August holiday, you will be hard pressed to find a pharmacy open , no grocery shop, no clothing stores, no barbers, but without a doubt, a cafe will be in operation. Even in the most tucked away village alley or ghetto, the coffee shop, the kafenio, is a sure thing open even into the wee hours of the night.
Athens has a complex ecosystem of coffee culture. Here is a break down:
The Old Man’s Traditional Kafenio
This is the traditional kafenio. Sparsely decorated except for dusty photos of islands and a picture of Jesus, jammed with circular tables, the kafenio is an all-male establishment. It is usually comprised of pensioners and middle-aged folk who need a place to socialize outside the domain of the nikokira or the mistress of the house, their wives. Although there is no law stating a woman cannot sit down and ask for a Greek coffee, no one dares because it is socially off limits. I went into one just to test the waters and did not receive any backlash in sneers or nasty comments probably because I passed as a xeni, a foreigner who did not know any better. The kafenio functions more as an older gentleman’s social club but serves round the clock coffee because what else is there to do than play cards, swing the koboloi and talk politics. Ok maybe watch a game of Olympiakos vs Panathenaikos, the sousouroudes. You normally can get only the traditional Greek coffee baked in a briqui or else a frappe.
Like our corner Starbucks chains, Athens is crowded with what I term coffee boutique chains. Establishments such as Coffee Island,
These are probably the best places to grab an espresso, fredo cappuccino, moccachino because they build their business exclusively on coffee. They rarely sell anything but. Here you can taste the fineness of difference between Ethiopian and Arabica brew. Some even search the dark jungles of Africa to concoct their own blends.
Neighborhood caffeinating spots
Centered around the square of any neighborhood can be found the neighborhood watering holes where locals gather to swap news, read a paper, or just sip life slowly. These are the coffee spots that natives make part of their daily routine, before work or after. They might provide a cheese pie or toast on the go but the core of their business is coffee. Some like the bakery chain Veneti make great coffee for the street.
Express coffee counters
This tier in the Greek coffee culture ecosystem is comprised of the quickie, grab a sandwich and a coffee on the go downtown shops. Chains such as Everest, Gregories quick bites, are ubiquitous not only in Athens but all over Greece. You can sit for a coffee break in the heat of the afternoon to escape the hustle and bustle of street life at these establishments or when the caffeine gas tank in your head gets critically low.
Coffee Night Bars
Just like the Irish go out to the pubs to pass the night away, the Greeks have coffee bars that are for going out in the evening. Unlike the day coffee counters that were created for daylight, the coffee bars can be posh and quite chi chi, good enough to make you put your high heels to go out for coffee. Sometimes these night coffee bars double as lounges where music and DJS flaunt their stuff. If you want to get an idea of the scale of this night coffee culture just venture out to Kolonaki Square at midnight and you will see coffee sipped in style by the glitterati of Athenian high society.
I especially recommend Paliatsos in the central square of Penteli mountain although technically it touts itself as a wine bar, as it serves your coffee in microsized copper coffee pots that distill the taste powerfully. Kolonaki Square, Heroes Square in Psiri and even Fokeinos Negri in Exarcheia as well as Kifissia Square are coffee bar meccas.
The truth be told, the drug of choice for Greeks is caffeine. To get the fix, it is possible to walk into any establishment and order something. McDonald’s and Goodys both offer Greek coffee as well as frappe. And in a real crunch you could walk into a taverna and just sit at a checkered table and order a metrio, a medium sweet, without any food no questions asked. Unlike the US that has a few solid chains of coffee establishments, DDs and the ubiquitous Starbucks, Athens’ coffee culture is a rich ecosystem that will keep your brain pistons lubricated around the clock.