IT was almost like turning back the clock to much happier days, as cheerful diners with beaming faces and happy laughter poured into the new Taverna Athena,
The old Taverna Athena behind Holiday Inn was like that until the night it was robbed at AK and pistol point, safe and till emptied, customers stripped of wallets, watches, wedding rings, jewellery, cash and credit cards.
After that incident — memorable in that when the top tsotsi involved tried to shoot the tyre of a customer’s Pajero, the communist-made 7,62 bullet ricocheted off the rubber and drilled him square between the eyes! — the dark end of the former Union Avenue was almost a no-go area.
There were more punters at the new restaurant on the Tuesday night on which the currency changed (and “Gonads” foisted on us) than I’ve seen at the former premises (now a stockbroker’s office), in total, in its final year there.
And they were clients any restaurateur would be pleased to have, although the ever discreet Stavros Anagnostopoulos claimed he didn’t know the people at the largest table were Pommie diplomats, second largest group were from the Red Cross/Red Crescent.
Folk paid in pounds, euros or greenbacks don’t worry about having three noughts slashed from their life savings and investments, or four digit inflation; they can get on with enjoying themselves. Especially during a three or so years “hardship posting” like Ha-ha-ha-rare (Africa’s fun capital.)
The new restaurant reeks of ambience and atmosphere, even when totally empty, as it was very briefly when I fell in with the doors. Authentic Greek music played at an acceptable level in the background and the air-conditioning/heating system made it advisable to discard at least one layer of clobber on a bitterly cold night.
Attractive checkered table cloths in blue-and-white gingham made a pleasing backdrop to gleaming white napery, non-obtrusive fresh flower arrangements, sparkling crystal and crockery, flashing cutlery. A very attractive, appealingly primitive, mural of a Greek island harbour scene fills most of one long wall, Hellenic ikons and paintings occupy most remaining space. There is a cosy, well-stocked bar, dominated by colourful draught beer pumps and the bogs belong in the Good Loo guide.
The welcome from Stavros and old faces from before Christmas at the old place was tangible; menus and wine lists were reassuringly the same (apart from prices and no lamb kleftikos).
The partners had said they would re-open, but I was cynical. The owner of the former wonderful Mayur Restaurant — probably the best Indian outlet in the country — said the same when they shut their Harare Street operation for the simple reason you couldn’t park within half a click at lunch and no one (except me, working next door) went to the Kopje at night!
That was five or six years ago. I still wait word they are back in business. Candidly it’s now unlikely, especially as Milton Park’s Zafraan, with distinctively Pakistani cuisine, but inconsistent house rules on the acceptability, or otherwise, of hooch — closed its doors unannounced recently.
So Taverna Athena was back in business more than half a year after closing “temporarily”. Would it work? I wondered. The answer soon walked in; in ones, twos, three and 10s including lots of children from ankle biters to spotty teens. Within half an hour the place was half full; within 60 minutes, pom-pom packed, with folk bar-propping, watching worriedly for an empty table.
When the weather warms up in a week or so, pressure will be off, as there is a large attractive outdoor al fresco dining area, used by only one or two hearty souls on a very chilly night.
A splendid basket of warm crusty continental bread with imported butter preceded one of the best, tastiest, most piping hot mushroom soups around ($600 000: sorry there was no sign of dual pricing then, and three days later as I write this prior to a spell of leave, there still is little around the dorp!) Traditional Greek and popular mid-stream starters were from $610 000 (skordalia) to $980 000 (mussels, deep-fried mushrooms and chicken livers.)
At Stavros’ suggestion I tried bream Walesa (sure this dish used to be called “Waleska” after some Polish femme fatale, before hairy politician Lech Walesa came on the scene!). I wouldn’t have sampled it had I known it contained 250g (more than half a pound!) of bream fillets, poached, with lots of mushrooms, covered in a very tasty cheesy béchamel-type sauce and served on a bed of mashed potatoes with young French beans sautéed with onions. Mashed butternut was so pleasant even I ate half.
Portions are huge; I feel sure it would be a good idea to slash both them and prices a little, but you can’t argue with bums on seats and there wasn’t a bumless seat that night. The bream dish was $3,55 million, about the same price as Greek mezes as a main course; moussaka was $2,52 million, chicken dishes $2,46-$2,7 million, grills from $2,85 million: fillet, sirloin or monkey-gland, to $3,8 million (pork spare ribs). As already moaned, lamb kleftikos (“stolen lamb” — hugely popular here) was “off” the menu and not “on” the blackboard specials list; lamb cutlets were $3,15 million.
A “small” Greek salad proved more than enough to accompany the main course and sufficient, with a roll, for lunch at my desk the next day. What was left of the Walesa would have made the basis of fine breakfast kedgeree, other than Zesa threw the switch mid-way through operations. Not daring risk, thrice cooked fish, a stray cat which has taken to visiting, despite three huge dogs’ slavering jealousy, enjoyed it.
Puddings were $650 000 to $830 000. At the lower end of the price scale, two generous scoops of vanilla ice-cream were very agreeable, with a cappuccino.
I had a Pilsener or two: $550 00 and $630 000 for “green” bottles.
Taverna Athena, Kensington SC (ex-Mateo’s) open lunch and supper Monday-to-Friday; Saturday supper only, closed Sundays. Booking recommended. Tel 705617/8.