TAVERNA Athena, now in Kensington, is one of the more consistent family restaurants in Harare.
“Now in Kensington,” because the Greek eatery – originally a first cousin of Mama Mia’s at Newlands – was for years behind Holiday Inn in Union Avenue, arguably the wrong end of that dim street. They moved to premises vacated by Mateo’s, a restaurant you either loved or hated, and flourished.
Mama Mia’s is, famously perhaps, Zimbabwe’s most successful Italian restaurant: odd, as it’s owned and run by a Greek, his Afrikaans-speaking wife and their son!
Taverna Athena is, however, stubbornly Greek. Music from Athens or Cyprus, Greek icons, posters and a huge mural of a fishing port clad walls. Cooking – especially daily specials —— is authentically Hellenic, and an obsolete built-in pizza oven, left by Mateo’s, stays unlit. Suggestions pizza should be added to the menu were shot down by directors; an even less likely idea it would be suitable for tandoori was also spurned.
With the right wood it should be ideal for lamb kleftiko (“stolen lamb”) that lovely, nourishing slow-cooked Greek staple; I hear that’s being probed.
There’s always a wonderfully warm welcome from managing partner Stavros Agnastopolous, born in the little Greek settlement called Gwelo (then!)
And until recently, Ryan de Villiers, a graduate of Meikles’ Hotel hands-on management training, helped meet, greet and seat, advising which particular dishes were especially good.
Ryan left to join Mark and Manuela Wolman’s team at Victoria 22, but I was glad to hear his place went to the stunning, amiable Kelly Alison, who once appeared in a column as Alison Kelly, after lunching well rather than wisely with her, either at Symphony, where she was GM, or Blue Banana/Baobab Grill, where she first came to note.
Kelly’s one of those highly competent youngsters in hospitality who, very early, have absorbed much experience. Her catering degree’s from Bournemouth; she then worked at some of the classiest outlets in Britain and Australia, possibly the most prestigious being London’s Savoy; she recently ran an up-market blue-chip game lodge on the fringes of Botswana’s Kalahari Desert.
Sadly Kelly wasn’t “on” Friday. She’s doing accountancy as another string to her bow. If her face is here, it’s because I either managed to find her “smudge” in my burgeoning-weekly, but totally chaotic, photo archive…or, more likely, returned when she was on duty! “Stav” forgot to renew liquor licence, so the waiter, temporarily, couldn’t sell me a lager on a hot-as-Hades day. Lack of licence didn’t, however, stop him sending me one from private stock.
It was an icily-chilled Carlsberg lager and I had mixed feelings. I love Carlsberg products but, as last week the Danish giant said it was closing the near 200-year-old Tetley’s Brewery, Leeds Bridge, British West Yorkshire, I disliked their apparent asset-stripping greed. Tetley beers are among the world’s best cask-conditioned real ales. A pint of mixed (mild-and-bitter) – cost a shilling! – was the first booze I ever tasted.
It took two pints to get used to the, at first, disgustingly foul taste. Probably a fortnight later I was on my 30th pint and hooked! Then, enormous shimmering, shiny, Shire horses clip-clop delivered huge hand-coopered oak barrels of draught, crates of bottles round the hundreds of CBD and inner city pubs and clubs Joshua Tetley and Son owned or supplied in and around Leeds, where I first worked in journalism.
Tetley’s raised an entire volunteer company from its workforce to fight in WWI and, in my days, WW II-vintage Brigadier Tetley bred dinky Dexter cattle on his estate between Leeds and Harrogate. Carlsberg plan to shut Tetley’s, shedding 200 jobs, in 2011. Nothing at all to do with the fact the 5,5 acre prime waterfront site is one of the most valuable bits of real estate in the north of England?
Never mind centuries of tradition, pride and heritage: shut, demolish and build yuppie flats, pizzerias, marina, Starbucks, McDonalds and studio suites for web-site designers!
Oh well, the Campaign for Real Ale has three years to fight it.
I digress. Taverna’s Greek salad was spectacular: different coloured peppers, plenty of plump purple olives and The Cheeseman’s idea of “feta”! And it came with bread…and butter. Not lovely continental sticks once served, but edible, fresh, light, crusty bread I forced myself to stop mopping olive oil and balsamic dressing with, as I would lose appetite for a main course of signature dish Manos chicken: half a big, plump, tender bird, grilled, basted non-stop in a secret bbq sauce that anoints trademark sparerib racks and steaks.
It came with good chips, creamed spinach, squash and a fringe of tasty decorative salad in addition to Greek salad starter.
After a ‘tween course break, in which I, treacherously, flattened another Carlsberg, Stav chain-smoked like it were 1966, and we swapped notes, I managedÂ a grand, colourful (very) fresh fruit salad with vanilla ice-cream.
Great, colourful portions of locally sourced ingredients, brilliantly cooked, professionally served in attractive surroundings. Good value for money: but rarely the cheapest venue around.
Taverna Athena shuts Sundays and for Saturday lunch; booking is suggested
lTaverna Athena, Kensington SC, Prince Edward St, Harare. Tel 705617/8.
By Dusty Miller