The Humble Origins of the Greek Taverna

Sitting in a vine-shaded courtyard bathed in dappled sunlight, your view of the glistening Mediterranean all jutting cliffs and tree-covered mountains. Colourful plates on paper tablecloths, pinned in the corners against the salty breeze. From the kitchen, the sound of animated conversation in a foreign tongue and the aromas of blistering aubergines and lamb fat smoking and spitting as it drips on to white-hot coals. The occasional whiff of the salty sea mixes with the smell of petrol from a passing motorbike. Long laughter-filled lunches blend blissfully into ouzo-fuelled evenings.

This is the ideal of the Greek taverna. And it’s an accurate picture for many seaside restaurants on the tourist-stuffed Greek islands. But the Greek tavernas of old were a different story. They were meeting places for the workers, the local manual labourers and tradespeople. They began more as grocery stores than restaurants. Blue-collar hangouts where the local wine was disseminated among the masses and where gossip, political theory and racy jokes were all part of the conversation. Within these public arenas for the people, you could drink the local wine and eat the local cheese or whatever else came out of the fields that day.

Far from the sun-drenched courtyards we think of today, tavernas were often in a basement or whatever other room was available in the town. They functioned as communal spaces where people would go to escape their cramped homes in which families often lived on top of each other.

Serving food at tavernas came about as a way to mask the taste of the local wine, often homemade and stored in a rustic manner. Over time, the focus shifted more onto the cooking, and more pride was taken in preparing the local ingredients in the best possible way. The cooking was simple and the wine remained at the heart of the experience

Tables and chairs used to share space with the prep and cooking area but gradually they started to move into separate dining rooms and people started to come to tavernas for the food, rather than just the wine. Tavernas were a meeting place, a community hub, much like the British pub or Japanese izakaya.

Even in ancient times, it seems, tavernas were fulfilling the same purpose – as far back as the 4th Century BC. In the Rhetoric, Aristotle’s treatise on the art of persuasion, he says, “tavernas are the canteens of Attica”.

Tavernas in Athens were known as kapeleia and offered regular folks somewhere to drink other than the Symposia, where the aristocracy drank until they danced and filled their bellies until they burst.

“Just as the common messes feed and water the entire citizenry in Sparta, so the whole population of Athens can be found of an evening thronging the kapeleia.”

This is an excerpt from James Davidson’s Courtesans and Fishcakes, a historical account of life in Athens, in which tavernas are described as “a far more demotic and promiscuous space than the private and selective andron or men’s room of the house”.

“These tavernas sold wine (only barbarians drank beer) and vinegar (wine’s natural byproduct), and in some establishments you could have something to eat as well: tragemata (sweets) or hales (savouries).”

In modern Greece, tavernas still provide the same service and are distinct from other restaurants, although many masquerade as tavernas to snare hapless tourists. At a taverna, you take whatever is available that day. You eat what is in season, cooked simply, taken with the local wine. Tavernas are evening places with entertainment, where guests will happily dance and sing the night away to the local bouzouki player’s traditional tunes.

There’s something inherent in humans which has meant this type of meeting place has developed independently in so many cultures. The sense of community, the sharing of plates, the democratisation of conversation and the enjoyment of good food and wine is universal and timeless and must be celebrated wherever it is found. Long live the taverna.

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For more Hellenic musings, read about how time and place has shaped Greek cuisine and for another dose of regional food culture, discover the colonial history of Punjab’s Patiala Peg or the origins of the Italian aperitivo tradition.

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