Located on the narrow steps of Mnisikleous Street in the heart of Plaka, Yiasemi Bistrot was selected by the editors of Condé Nast Traveler magazine as one of the world’s favourite secret destinations that they love to visit during their off-the-beaten-path vacations.
“Every travel journalist has a few places that he or she keeps quiet: unexpected finds that have become secret favourites, staples of their little black (travelling) book that are off-duty destinations. So we asked our team to spill and share those finds, whether restaurants, hotels, towns, or even a lighthouse,” they wrote.
“Athens has long been an underrated European capital – one most people just pass through on their way to an island – and given the country’s recent struggles, even fewer people, I think, consider it a destination in and of itself,” says Katherine LaGrave, Associate Digital Editor at Condé Nast Traveler.
“To anyone who isn’t sure of what else Athens has to offer (besides being the epicentre of the ancient world, that is), I’d point them to Yiasemi. It’s such a perfect representation of the old-meets-new that Athens does so well. It’s somewhat hidden, which makes it all the more fun.”
With tables on the steps of a picturesque alley and an interior that reminds you of a hospitable house set in a bygone era, Yiasemi truly prevails as a small treasure hidden in the narrow streets of the most beautiful neighbourhood in Athens, Plaka.
“Athens has a special place in my heart. Even when I go back to the city today, this small café on the steps still manages to feel like a shared secret between friends. It’s really where locals go, and I’ve spent many afternoons and evenings here with friends drinking coffee – or something a little stronger,” says Katherine who lived in Athens for two years.
Yiasemi is certainly a lot more than just a traditional local café.
Owner Mariza Kouzeli, who has spent the last eight years of her life turning an old building into this special gem, has managed, through hard work and the marriage of traditional and modern concepts, to find ways to turn her café into a street landmark where customers can go from early in the morning until the late hours of night and immerse in its cosy atmosphere, taste homemade food, delicious spoon sweets as well as genuine Greek coffee.
“I wanted Yiasemi to have a ‘homely’ feel where people can experience being part of a larger family. To me, what’s most important is for everyone to come here and indulge in a really warm atmosphere and feel like they have stepped back in time, visiting their yiayia’s or aunty’s home,” Mariza says.
If you ever find yourself there, take a seat on the cosy pillows and enjoy watching people passing by. You will adore the beautiful courtyard that is reminiscent of Athens’ old glorious times. If you choose to sit inside, you will be tempted by smells of homemade bread, lemon pies, biscuits, herbal teas and the many other delightful aromas. Choose one of the light dishes or a pastry and enjoy it in one of the most authentic meeting places in Athens.
“We make everything from scratch, from the biscuits we serve with the coffee to the yummy traditional food and desserts throughout the day. We start serving at 10 in the morning and don’t stop until a couple hours after midnight. Our customers are welcome to come at any time and try anything their heart desires from our menu.”
According to Mariza, running a business in Greece’s current economic climate is by no means an easy task for the fainthearted.
“It is a constant battle, but we love what we do. Our prices haven’t increased in eight years while the quality of our food and what’s on offer gets upgraded constantly, so that we can keep our customers satisfied. At the end of the day, that’s what’s important to us.
“Our house is open to everyone. You could be sipping Greek coffee while people around you are opening filo pastry, making jam, a homemade liqueur, or preparing traditional Greek desserts as if you were at home,” says 40-year-old Mariza, who left her home island Mykonos eight years ago to follow her dream.
The hardworking entrepreneur admits that the island helped her understand and learn a lot about customer service and professionalism while working in hospitality.
“Mykonos was a huge learning experience for me but it has now changed dramatically; thus, I decided to leave and come to Plaka which reminds me of the island life, away from the island, in the heart of Athens,” she says.
The café welcomes thousands of foreigners and locals throughout the year that love exploring the neighbourhood and who are seeking out unique experiences, while delving into the authentic traditional Athens. A few years ago, Yiasemi also featured in one of the most successful Greek movies directed by Greek producer/actor Christopher Papakaliatis, What if … (Av).
“It was certainly a great production and an amazing experience. When the movie was released it gave a real boost to the area because people came looking for this special place in Athens; it was like everyone was reminded of the old traditional Greek neighbourhood of Plaka.”
Following its recent renovations, Yiasemi has had a further makeover in order to accommodate more customers and host concerts, cultural events and art exhibitions adding more value to the already unique experience.
As far as the name goes, it’s really not hard to understand why Mariza named her café Yiasemi.
“It was after my favourite flower,” she says.
“I love the smell, the feel, the look. I love everything about my Yiasemi.”