16 April 2020
A ‘virtual tour’ of a dozen
restaurants in Rethymnon
to visit after the lockdown
I was planning to spend seven days in Crete these days, taking part in the Holy Week ceremonies, and preparing for Good Friday which falls tomorrow (17 April 2020) in the calendar of the Orthodox Church, and for the Easter celebrations at the weekend.
In recent weeks, however, all flights to Crete have been cancelled, and I have had to forgo my hotel booking because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
I have been visiting Crete since the mid-1980s, and this may yet be the first time in a decade or more than I have not been in Greece.
For the past two years, I have spent Orthodox Good Friday in Greece: in Rethymnon in Crete last year (2019), and in Thessaloniki in Northern Greece the previous year (2018). The street parades on Good Friday, the solemn tolling of the church bells, the decoration of the churches and the celebrations on Saturday night are unique experiences, that might be compared with Holy Week and Easter in Barcelona, but are unparalleled in my experience in northern Europe.
When these ceremonies, parades and celebrations were over, I had hoped to enjoy some of my favourite restaurants in Crete. Instead, I suppose, I ought to offer a ‘virtual tour’ of a dozen or more of my favourite restaurants in Rethymnon and its suburbs.
Most of these restaurants and tavernas should be opening this week or next week. I am hoping that all of these places survive the impact of this current, horrendous, crisis, and that I am able to enjoy their cuisine and hospitality once again in the not-too-distant future.
1, Pagona’s Meze Place, Tsesmés:
I spent Greek Holy Week and Easter last year in La Stella, between suburban Platanias and the pretty suburban village of Tsesmés, with its quiet tavernas.
Restaurants like Pagona’s Meze Place, run by the talented Pagona Delimpasi and her welcoming family, have a unique cuisine, brought here almost a century ago by the ancestors of the families living in Tsesmés today as they fled the persecution of Greek-speaking people in Cesmes in Anatolia in the 1920s.
The cuisine in Pagona’s Place calls to mind A Touch of Spice (Πολίτικη Κουζίνα, Politiki Kouzina), the 2003 Greek film by Tassos Boulmetis about Fanis Iakovides, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics, and his grandfather Vassilis who was a culinary philosopher in Constantinople.
Across the street from Pagonas is Taverna Stratos on Nikeas Street, and Tsesmés has number of other small cafés and bars.
2, Akri Taverna Garden, Souliou:
I first got to know the Akri Taverna Garden on the corner of Souliou street in the form of its predecessor when I first stayed in Rethymnon over 30 years ago in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
At the time, it was a simple and humble wine and meze bar, with a staff of two who worked from across the street. Today it is a colourful, hidden courtyard taverna, run by Leonardo Proko and his wife Vassilou, and their two daughters.
3, Marem, Machis Kritis:
Marem on Machis Kritis in suburban Platanias is a family-run restaurant that dates from 1995. The menu combines traditional Greek and contemporary European cuisine.
The warm welcome has always included a benign encouragement of my efforts to order from the menu in Greek, gently correcting my faltering pronunciation.
As you might expect, they use their own Cretan-produced olive oil, herbs and spices, and like all the restaurants on this ‘virtual tour,’ there is a generous understanding of the needs of vegetarians.
4, Myli, Machis Kritis, Platanias:
Myli, a few steps further west on the main road that runs through Platanias, is easily spotted with its windmills and the watermill at this restaurant, and I have often been shown to table by the watermill, with the refreshing sound of the mill water beside us as we dined.
This restaurant opened 2011 but seeks to be an ambassador for traditional Greek cuisine. An introduction on the menu says: ‘This effort is dedicated to my grandfather Yiorgos, my grandmother Stella and her sister Anroniki who built this house and lived here all their lives.’
The family came from a long line of windmill owners in Smyrna (Izmir) and settled in this place after the horrific destruction of the Greek city in Anatolia by Ataturk in 1922.
The pages of the menu have unusual citations from a disparate variety of sources, including Hamlet and the controversial Greek philosopher Dimitris Liantinis, who went missing in strange and never-explained circumstances near Sparti in 1998. It is thought he completed suicide and his body was eventually found in a cave in 2005.
Was the designer of the menu comparing Hamlet’s contemplations of death with those of Liantinis?
But the food and setting are anything but morose.
5, Kyria Maria, Moshovitou:
Kyria Maria is just behind the Rimondi Fountain, the labyrinth of narrow streets that run down to Venetian harbour. The taverna has many birds that sing all day and all evening.
Kyria Maria offers good ‘early bird’ menus, but maintains a high standard of authentic Cretan cuisine.
Nearby, Sarlo on Palaiologou Konstantinou, between the Rimondi Fountain and the Loggia, is a good place to sit out at lunchtime. I have often spent an hour or two here in the sunshine, with a falafel and yoghurt wrap, sharing a small bottle of chilled retsina, watching life go by and life in the shops across the street.
6, To Pigadi, Xanthoudidou:
To Pigadi (‘The Well’) on Xanthoudidou street takes its name from the well in the courtyard that was an extension of a large Venetian building that was used for gardening and as stables. The building was destroyed during Ottoman rule, but the courtyard and the exterior wall survived.
During the restoration, the well, a big stone trough and a Lion’s Head dating from the Venetian era were found and today decorate the restaurant, run by chefs Harris Pavlakis and Simos Simakis.
Across the street, Avli was established in 1986 by Katerina Xekalou. Avila is in a villa dating from the 1530s, and now includes a well-known restaurant, ten luxurious suites, a wine cellar and a shop selling traditional Cretan products.
Nearby, Sympligades (Συμπληγάδες, ‘The Clashing Rocks’) on Vernadou Street, between the corners of Epimenidou and Xanthoudidou streets, is a μεζεδοπωλείο or taverna specialising in mezedes, good wine, raki and live Cretan music.
The notices on the door and the two side windows of the simple Greek shopfront are a celebration of Cretan poetry and song, and the middle panel on the door celebrate μαντινάδες, mantinades (singular μαντινάδα, mantinada), a unique poetic form of a narrative or dialogue, sung in the rhythm of accompanying music.
7, Kellari, Machis Kritis:
Kellari also stands on Machis Kritis in Platanias, and was established in 1990. The name Kellari is unusual, because this suburban restaurant has no cellar at all.
The host Stavros Karamanis speaks English, German, French, and some Swedish, Dutch and Russian – as well as Greek – and there is a quiet, cool, upper room at the back.
I have learned something new about Greek food in each one of these restaurants, and here I learned that watermelon, feta, mint and olive make a good salad.
8, Lemonokipas, Antistaseos Street:
The entrance from Antistaseos Street to Lemonokipos (Lemon Tree Garden) could hardly prepare the first-time visitor for the beautiful garden brimming with fragrant lemon trees and the view looking out onto Mikrasiaton Square with the Nerantzes Mosque and other important Byzantine and Ottoman buildings in the heart of the old town.
Located has been here since 2000, and offers a menu that combines rustic Cretan and Greek flavours with more refined and sophisticated plates – a menu that is complemented by a carefully chosen wine list
9, Vergina, Machis Kritis:
There are two restaurants on Machis Kritis in Platanias with the name Vergina: Vergina 1 and Vergina 2. Both are decorated with reminders of Vergina in northern Greece and show pride in the legacy of Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great and classical Greece.
Both restaurants offer traditional Cretan fare, and are good options for a quiet lunch. But they are also good places to find live Cretan music and dancing in evening.
10, Pavlos Beach Canteen:
For the past five or six years in Rethymnon, I have stayed in the suburban villages of Platanias and Tsesmes, both within walking distance of the long sandy beach that stretches for miles east of Rethymnon.
My hours of enjoying sunshine and swimming in the clear blue Mediterranean, and catching up on my reading, have been interrupted pleasantly with light but lingering lunches in the canteen run by Hilary, Pavlos’ wife, runs on Pavlos Beach. The fare is simple, and it is a pleasant and welcoming place to spend time in the shade reading the newspapers.
One evening, the nearby Minos Mare Hotel also set out tables on the beach, and two of us had dinner in this pop-up restaurant as we watched the sun set behind the Fortezza in Rethymnon to the west.
Two years ago, when I was staying in the Varvaras Diamond Hotel in Platanias, I also discovered Finikas on Motakis street on the way down to the beach. This is a small area with family-run hotels and restaurants. But just to show I small this world is, I also had lunch in Finikas with a former student I had bumped into unexpectedly earlier that day near Kalleris on Machis Kritis.
11, Taverna Garden, Platanias:
For three years in a row, I stayed at Julia Apartments on the corner of the small square in Platanias. This is a family-run complex, run by Vasilis Vogiatzis, his wife Brenda from Scotland, their daughters and his sister. There is a pool, a poolside bar and a restaurant, all set in a blossomed garden.
The apartments look out onto the garden of the Taverna Garden restaurant or up to the mountains. Each morning we had breakfast with bread bought in the local bakery and fruit from Pavlakis supermarket down the street.
The Akropolis bar across the square from Julia Apartments, offered a welcome, good coffee, and good internet access when I needed it. Like Vergina 1 and Vergina 2, its décor demonstrates a pride in classical Greece.
12, Sunset Taverna:
The Sunset Taverna, beneath the slopes of the Fortezza, is worth an evening, if just for the views of the … well, of the sunset. The waiters not only have trays in their hands, but take their lives in their hands, as they cross a busy road, to bring food and wine from the kitchen to the tables.
But if you are looking for dinner-time views or romantic settings for dinner, then there are many throughout Rethymnon.
The old Venetian harbour is lined with many photogenic seafood restaurants, such as the Seven Brothers, which is part of a large, classical, two-storey building and has seating both at the harbour-front and on the top floor.
Colourful restaurants on the slopes of the Fortezza include Vassilis on the corner of Chimarras Street and Agiropoulon.
But wherever you go in Rethymnon, in the old town, along the seafront, or in the suburbs, you are hardly going to go wrong. I hope they are all back in business within a few months.