The most sought-after spots were the tables next to the wooden barrels as if they didn’t only mature wine, but also helped ingenious ideas come to life. It’s where Lefteris Papadopoulos sat when he wrote the lyrics to songs that generations of Greeks have grown up with, Tha pio apopse to fengari (Tonight, I’ll drink the moon) and Vrehei fotia sti strata mou (It’s raining fire in my way), while eating a plate of chickpeas with rice. In lean economic times, it wasn’t unusual to hear the word oligi spoken quietly by the waiter as he placed orders to the kitchen, suggesting that the patron wanted only half the regular portion.
“In the underground tavern, between the smoke and swearing, (above the screaming barrel organ), we friends drank yesterday, yesterday like all other nights, to drown our sorrows,” wrote Kostas Varnalis in one of his most famous poems. While modern nightlife has wiped out many of the old koutoukia, the one that Varnalis refers to is still open and unchanged. It’s right behind the Varvakios Agora, Athens central food market. Walk to number 9 on Sokratous Street, look down, and you’ll see two large doors that lead to a basement. And a time warp. Drink wine from the barrels (they make their own), peek into the humble dishes cooking on the stove (try the chickpeas and the sardines), and live the atmosphere of a real, underground koutouki, Diporto.