24 March 2012

The Interior World of Greek Tavernas

As soon as it gets warm enough, it is almost impossible to resist dining alfresco. Surprisingly, in Greece, where it was almost always warm enough, we found ourselves choosing a seat inside more often than not. Greek tavernas all feel like they're cut from the same cloth, a comfy cloth that you just wanna wrap yourself right up in. If you were to stumble upon any one of them in another place, they would strike you as either quirkily cozy or contrived kitsch. In Greece, they are simply restaurants - their atmosphere is a part of modern tradition.
Like walking into a British pub or a French brasserie or a New Jersey diner (another type of Greek tavern?), there are certain key elements that are almost always present. The pub has its thick, polished dark wood, dim lighting, bartenders in ties. The brasserie has its zinc bar, art deco advertisements and chalkboard menus. The diner decor isn't complete without tabletop flip jukeboxes, paper placemats with cocktail recipes and a spinning pastry display stand. The Greek taverna has plaid tablecloths, covered in paper, wooden chairs, unset tables (utensils come tucked into your bread basket), white walls covered in anything and everything, globe lamps hanging from high ceilings, at least one painting of a boat.
Don't let this picture fool you - at 6 of the 10 dinners we ate out in Greece, we dined alone. We'd wait as long as we could and would still only see locals just arriving for their meal as we left, around nine or nine thirty. In fact, the diners pictured above aren't locals either. They were a group of American tourists in from the idling cruise ship in Nafplio's harbor. The man standing in the corner fits an integral part of the tavern recipe: the proprietor.
They welcome you, set your table, sit with you to explain the 'menu,' serve you food, clean your place and - often - serve you a little something else. Clementines at one place, rings of apple dusted with cinnamon at another, warm halva, which, nothing like the sesame treat of the same name, is a sweet polenta cake. If the proprietor isn't preparing your meal, their mother or wife is. Greek tavernas are family affairs and the concept of hired help never really enters the equation.
In Fourni, Niko's father cleared our plates when we finished eating. His father and father's father hung around in black and white photos. Mostly, he sat and watched the television strung up high in the corner - another tavern staple. At dinnertime, most places shut theirs off completely. Here, the tv was tuned into a channel with a split screen - Forrest Gump on one side and lotto results on the other. A vase of fresh flowers sat on each table, a detail that we would come to see time and again.While eating alone, we never felt the chill or echo of an empty dining room. With walls full of family portraits or Broadway playbills hanging around, it's a little easier. There's a certain embrace that clutter can give you. If nothing else, the model boats and horse saddles offer conversation fodder.
And this is how they would all inevitably look at the end. The paper cover spotted with water and wine, the emptied bowls of greek salad and horta with their puddles of olive oil and huge lemon halves, a tip, unfinished bread and not much else. There's probably a forgotten pen hidden under their somewhere.

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