I always think that when you go to a taverna any ability you have of properly gauging how truly hungry you are or the actual food-to-person ratio goes flying out of the window, with a malfunctioning jetpack strapped to its back.
You can’t help yourself. If you’re there with anything upwards of three or four people you speed through the menu like a demon, shooting off items with your index finger, eager to get back to whatever pointless topic of conversation you were spinning around. We’ll have the spanakopita. And the tiropita. One order of tiganites patates. Make that two. Three? No, two will be fine. The horiatiki salata, easy on the feta. Fine, HEAVY on the feta, GAWD. A kontosouvli, a plate of horta, some tirokafteri for sure, I mean we GOTTA right? Maybe those keftedes, yeh, they sound like a great idea and on and on and on, until the plates start to arrive and you resort to various Tetris-esque stacking techniques that would make any engineer proud.
Worse still, if there IS no menu and your waiter or waitress just starts running down the list of available dishes from memory (God bless ’em), it becomes a horror show, a rain of “yes, we’ll have that,” and “oh, yeah, definetly some of that!” that you so regret, two hours down the line, when you have so many plates in front of you, it looks like you’re defending a castle from a siege.
I’m sure there are many out there, who don’t succumb to the order-a-heap monster, but that’s not really the issue here. My reality when it comes to tavernas, is the one I’ve just described. The point is, I feel comfortable in tavernas. Comfortable enough to assume the role of the chief orderer and pay for it later be it by pocket, or by the “what were you thinking?” looks my friends shoot in my direction from across the table. I feel comfortable. There I said it. Growing up in Greece, or whenever there is a nugget of said country, the taverna and the time you spend there, becomes more than just a place where you go and eat. It becomes a destination, that formulates, shapes and defines realtionships with your family, friends and loved ones. Maybe not all of these realtionships lead somewhere essential, but the taverna stays with you, a social beacon that calls to you again and again throughout your life and a place where you return, to perhaps re-connect with your past, your childhood, or simply to go back to something simple. Sometimes even crudely so.
You see, the thing is, it doesn’t even have to be a very good taverna. I’ve been to plenty places where the food was downright horrible. The meat was cooked to the point where it could serve as blunt killing tool, the salad was drowning in oil, the keftedes were golf balls, the kalamarakia could help you sling a fork across the room and the waiter surveyed all this loveliness offering the odd grunt as a response.
Even here, in tavernas that taste forgot, there would be something. A clinking of stunted glasses of beer, a joke about the toothless cutlery, the odd track of music pushing its way through the mesh of an old radio speaker. Whatever the case, whatever the state, whatever the food, you always take something away from a taverna. Something that helps you set out valuable waypoints as life stretches ever onwards.
For me, pushing 40 years old, there have been more than a few. With my parents and extended family throughout my childhood and with a few friends growing up, where you ditch the sodas and the focus on food and realise that that beer and wine slowly but steadily takes over the table, the right lubricants to wash away work weeks, emotional stress and maybe a win or a loss courtesy of your favourite football team.
Hell, these days, I even miss the things that use to irk me in the past. The noisy children motoring around the tables and bumping into you, yelling and screaming their way through a meal, that cut of meat that takes about two hours to get to your table, the super tight squeeze as the waiter crams six of you onto a three-seat table, the plates that never arrive, the always atrocious retsina (sorry retsina fans, we’ll get around to that another time), the hellish house red, it doesn’t really matter that much anymore.
Maybe its because there’s less of it now (for me at least), and that nostalgia hook digs under the skin and latches straight onto your soul. Maybe it’s because I always thought of a trip to the taverna as a mostly Sunday thing (I still do) and Sundays to his day, remain a family affair, a completely laid back day that doesn’t require much thought beyond “what are we eating?” and “how soon are we eating it?”.
Maybe its all those things and none of them at all. Whatever it is, the very notion of the taverna, heading to one, eating in one, still strikes a chord in me. I usually can’t wait to get there, even though I know that (as ever), I’ll end up ordering way too much, eating way too little and worrying about the service; whether they’ll drop too much feta on the salad, or whether the wine will be undrinkable. It’s just one of those things that make sense, even when they don’t.
And the faster time sprints past you, the more you just need things that make sense. Even if you end up ordering way too much.