Diporto in the center of Athens: A Taste of Bygone Days

The restaurant Diporto used to be one of the best kept secrets in central Athens, a place frequented only by regulars, and by those truly in the know. But since then it has been discovered, and as a result, has lost some of its innocence and genuineness. But the food is still very good, very traditional, and very homey. Catering to market hours, Diporto is a wonderful place to come for lunch. If a savory, traditional breakfast is your thing, some of that cod and garlic sauce, for example, then you'll find a welcome table from around 6 a.m. It's a great place to get a sense of Athens in bygone days, when the city was small and intimate, and the market its true heart.

As tiny taverna located somewhere within the vicinity of the central market, just below a great shop that sells nothing but olives, Diporto is not difficult to miss. I remember peeking down the three or four steps leading to the "dining room", a ramshackle interior where Barba Mitso reigns supreme as owner, cook, and sometimes waiter. He began his career at Diporto as a young man, waiting tables, but eventually bought the place himself. He spotted me looking in, a little dubious, and he beckoned. Before I could even react, I found myself seated for lunch next to Despina, one of the neighborhood regulars. She lapped up her plate of chick pea soup, finished off her wine in one gulp, and began bellowing out a song. From that moment on, Diporto has been one of my favorite central Athens haunts. They just don't make restaurants like this any more.

“Diporto,” Greek for “two doors,” is a reference to the two entrances on the fringe of the Athens Central Market leading down into the taverna. It attracts a colorful assortment of Athenians, from local characters like Despina, to the artsy crowd that has encroached on the neighborhood in recent years, to a spate of lawyers and other professionals, who take their midday break away from the mundane suit-and-tie regime.

Mitso cooks very simple, very traditional Greek cuisine. His chick pea soup is to die for, a luscious, filling, melt-in-your-mouth elixir that soothes both body and soul. His salads are grand and filling, and he is apt to add a hot pepper or two to the typical Greek village tomato-cucumber fare. You'll find plenty of vegetarian dishes here, from boiled cabbage and zucchini salads dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, to greens and ample bean dishes. He specializes in certain small fried fish and has a penchant for fresh sardines. His cod fritters and garlic sauce spare no one. Pungent. Robust. Delicious. Almost everything at Diporto gets washed down with retsina, which is the house wine. Mitso always makes sure his stock is of good quality.

Dessert. Hmmm... Nothing fancy here. He'll bring over a plate brimming with seasonal fruit and a little wedge of sesame halva- the perfect foil to the potent retsina.