Athens’ most Traditional Tavern is in a Meat Market
Food makes me selfish. I’d always suspected it, but as I lead my pescatarian husband through the meat section of Varvakios Central Market in Athens, I know it’s true.
He makes a weird, deep inhaling noise. I assume it’s his way of coping with the butchers hacking at carcasses on wooden blocks beside cabinets piled with flesh. I don’t ask, because I don’t care. Selfish.
“We’re here!” I announce, and switch off Google maps.
I stop outside at Oinomageireio H Epirus. Also known as Epirus Taverna, it’s a small mageirio, a neighbourhood restaurant serving homely meals in a casual atmosphere. The whitish-brown floor tiles are straight out of my grandparent’s bathroom and the vintage light box would go for a fancy penny at a flea market.
It’s smack-bang in the middle of the butchers. The glass doors are slid open so that guests have full view of the meat market and the less-than-subtle metallic scent of raw meat permeates the dining room. My husband turns a shade paler, but is too tired to complain; we dumped our bags in the basement of an Airbnb building after a 12-hour red-eye flight and came straight here. Admittedly, I’d withheld the details – I didn’t want to ruin brunch.
Epirus is known for its soups and casseroles, which simmer away behind the counter in large pots. It opens around 6am during the week and closes at 8pm and on Sunday, but it’s a 24-hour deal on Saturday. I’m here to try magiritsa, a soup made from lamb offal and herbs that’s usually only available around Greek Easter. A friendly gentleman escorts us past white-haired men and market stallholders at tables to the display, where eight stainless steel soup pots call my name.
Dishes change daily, but today we can choose from a number of soups made with fish, lamb, chickpeas or chicken, plus vegetables (stewed and stuffed) and whole fish arranged nose-to-tail in oil and lemon juice. All the soups contain meat (again, selfish), but the ladero (“with oil”) dishes are just as enticing, especially the okra and beans that have been slow-cooked in oil and herbs until they’ve softened and swelled from absorbing the marinade.
I order and sit down under the approving gaze of black-and-white celebrity photographs. I give Anthony Bourdain and Jamie Oliver a nod. Crusty bread arrives, followed by horiatiki (also known as Greek salad, though not in Greece) and then our food. I’m instructed to squeeze a lemon wedge into my bowl, add chilli flakes to taste, and mix. The first spoonful makes my jet-lagged body sigh. The acidity lifts the heavy broth, which is thickened with rice and bobs with brown curls of lamb offal and dill. I mop my soup dregs with the remaining bread until the bowl looks like it’s just been removed from its packaging.
Bellies full and plates cleared, we’re presented with spongy Greek halva made from semolina. I’m elated, which is how I always feel when I eat something new. I catch myself and remember my husband. His colour has returned and he’s safely seated with his back to the butcher, who has just separated a lamb’s leg from its torso. I ask if he’s glad we came.
“That…” he says, looking at the space where our food sat just moments ago, “was delicious.”
I make a mental note to continue to put myself first.
4 Filopoimenous 10551 Athens, Greece