Twenty years ago, I used to go to Pangrati only for less than a handful of reasons – chiefly because one of my best friends lived there, just off Embedokleous street, the pavements of which are lined with cement balls. The second reason was that I had an uncle who lived in next-door Mets and we loved to drink wine and dine at Vyrinis, a family-run taverna with tasty home-cooked food and a small but charming courtyard (where kids still run around screaming way past their bedtime) and the service is always friendly. The third reason was that at the time I was singing in a band, and we used to go to a dingy studio off Plastira square to rehearse, after which we end up discussing our LP-releasing dreams while sipping cheap at a kafeneion.
Whenever I visited my friend I felt the difference between Pangrati and other areas – the neighbourhood cannot be described as attractive or charming, but its dense residential, yet hidden away element created a near-suburban, homey feel. It also happens to be right behind the Panathenaic Stadium, and when my friend, who often went running in the small track behind the stadium took me to see it I was surprised by its mere existence and how popular it was – and still is – amongst the track and field fans of Athens. Rising up behind the marble stadium, above the track I’ve mentioned is Arditou hill, a verdant and classically historical natural landmark from where one can see lovely views of the Acropolis, Lycabettus Hill and the Columns of Olympian Zeus. I know it’s at its most magical at the crack of dawn because that’s where a group of us walked up at the end of my Pangrati friend’s party one morning.
My friend left Greece a decade ago so I didn’t return to Pangrati until another Spanish-French friend temporarily moved there because she was studying at The Athens Centre in the area. One night I was invited to meet out at the Chelsea Hotel bar, and I woke up t how much had changed. The Chelsea bar was thronging with people, so many people from their 20s and way up that they poured out onto the pavement, either crammed around small tables or standing and leaning against the wall. When hunger struck, I was taken next door to another surprising joint, Elvis‘ upbeat souvlaki store, where you feel like you are in Berlin and a rural yet hip Greek souvlatzidiko at once, and which serves perfectly-grilled, succulent meat on a stick and perfectly crispy hand-cut fries to a feel-good boppy soundtrack.
Across from Elvis I noticed Fish Point, which I went to take a closer look at because yes indeed, it has a fishmonger’s stall in its exterior although inside it’s a modern sophisticated restaurant. With their own fish farms, the owners here serve fresh fish in classic Mediterranean, French, Italian and Japanese rendition (there is an entire sushi menu). Their chef is Roman, so the pasta dishes with seafood or pesto are also flavoursome and authentically prepared.
Since that first surprise visit to “modern-day” Pangrati, I’ve often returned and as in the rest of Athens, every time I go I notice a new place, especially near the three main squares – Varnava, Proskopon, and Plastira. Without having lost that comforting homey feel I had enjoyed so many, sleepier years ago, the area now has a fresh, upbeat yet low-key new air about it both day and night.
There are several places that have been around for many years and have now regained popularity or are being discovered by a wider public – such as Mavro Provato, which serves modern Greek creative dishes made with ingredients from around the country, Pnyka bakery, which is known for its great tsoureki and savoury pies, Lido also for tsoureki-lovers, Aerostato bar/cafe, two-Michelin-star awarded Spondi, and classic tavernas such as Vyrinis, Magemenos Avlos (a ‘60s taverna that has catered to much of the capital’s intelligentsia), Mouries and Kekkos.
And then there are newer openings such as Mystic, which has a sister-restaurant in Exarchia and serves cannabis-dough pizzas with plenty of vegan and vegetarian toppings, Baba Ganoush that in the know falafel-lovers swear by, T & Togg’s for ice cream and pancakes and Gepetto cafe-bar, Flamingo Drinks and Stories, Mint all-day bar, Monsieur Cannibale restaurant/cocktail paradise, Pournarousa hipster kafeneion and Mavros Gatos. One of my favourite contemporary Pangrati places is Superfly, where you can sip coffee or a cocktail in what basically looks like a ‘70s- ‘90s vintage store. You won’t need any company here, you can simply sit taking in the odd combination of objects and furnishings, from dolls, street signs, shoes and football, music and film posters to a ‘60s telephone, a flipper game, old-school classroom chairs, and Donald Duck.
Apart from the multitude of great places to eat and drink, Pangrati also boasts a few stores that boost the vibrant daytime energy. If you’re looking for a ‘bookish’ bookstore with a quirky style, look no further than Lexicopoleio, where you can find foreign as well as Greek literature and textbooks. Art lovers should head to Chalk of the Town, which offers creative seminars, or gallery / creative space Art Zone 42, which presents art exhibitions and organizes thematic talks. If you have time, just stroll around looking out for these hotspots but also for the neighbourhood’s hidden corners, and don’t miss out on the neighbourhood’s most interesting building, a re-done three-story polykatikia named Urban Cubes because of its cubist design by Klab architects. Pangrati is also home to Athens’ oldest cinema, Pallas, which opened in 1925.