A little bit of Paris: literary cafés in Athens
Updated: May 10
Café Brazilian. © Big Olive / Katerina Nikakis
Where better to sample of a slice of Athens’ bygone past than one of the beautifully preserved historic cafés? The most historic Athenian cafés congregate around Panepistimiou Boulevard. This is the neighborhood where Henry Miller discussed the ideas that made up The Colossus of Maroussi, where actress-politician Melina Mercouri would spend much of her leisure time with good friends, and that the MacFarlands frequent in Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Two Faces of January.
Café Zonar’s: The literary haunt, where waiters were loved for their old fashioned dress sense, was frequented by many cultural Greek figures. Photo source: womenonly.gr
Café Zonar’s and Café Brazilian, side by side but perennial rivals, have been the favorite meeting point for people involved in the arts, for many years. Beloved by artists, actors, authors as well as other influential figures, in their heyday during the ’30s and the ’60s many flocked these historical establishments to partake in literary debates over a morning cup of coffee.
The simple yet elegant Art Deco interior of Zonar’s. Image source: athens.wiz-guide.com
The famous Café Zonar’s where many Athenians had their first experience with Coca-Cola, was also the haunt of major writers from many countries, including Jorge Luis Borges, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell and Evelyn Waugh. And not just writers: these cafés were frequented by street vendors hoping to sell their wares to tourists whiling away the time on Zonar’s sunny pavement terrace. Those vendors sold pistachio nuts, sponges of all sizes and shapes, and even mussels.
Stellan Skarsgård and Ashley Remy at Zonar’s. Screenshot of the film Signs & Wonders. © Michael Midgley.
Café Brazilian shut its doors in the late nineties and was replaced by the Clemente. Named after Pope Clement VIII who blessed the coffee bean, this coffee house has become a society watering hole from morning to night. The old Brazilian café has been immortalized in Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Two Faces of January.
“He was a slender, dark-haired young man, quiet and slow in movement. There was an air of melancholy about him, melancholy turned outward rather than inward, as if he brooded not on his own problems but the world’s. His dark eyes seemed to see and to think about whatever they looked at. […] It was an even bet every morning whether the elevator would come or not, and every morning he played a game with himself: if the elevator came, he would have breakfast in the Taverna Dionysiou, and if it didn’t come, he would buy a newspaper and have breakfast in Café Brazil .[…] in the Taverna Dionysiou he knew so many people, he was always talking too much to read anything, and in the Café Brazil, a fancier place, he never knew anyone, and so always took a newspaper with him for company.”
Café Zonar’s. Image Source: peoplegreece.com.
Zonar’s which has also been immortalized on film, in photographs, drawings, and print, has been recently refurbished and is back to its former glory. Enjoying a café au lait and croissant on a shady pavement table chez Zonar’s is one of the ultimate Athenian experiences.
Athens literary walking tour Big Olive guides a walking tour around Athens’ literary café’s. Take in the haunts of writers from Hans Christian Andersen and Henry Miller to Laurence Durrell, George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis; enjoy a cup of coffee or raise a glass to their words and works.
Café Zonar’s 9, Voukourastiou Street / Phone: 2103211158 – 2103211182
Clemente VIII 3, Voukourestiou Street / Phone:2103219340
Written by Nicolas Nicolaides