PEOPLE – Manolis’s Kafeneo- PART ONE

14 Oct 2003

Manolis’s Kafeneo (café) is located in the center of Elounda’s square and is the center of civilization, as far as Manolis is concerned. There is only a single strip on a single road leading to the port, and he enjoys a prime location. However, Manolis’ s place is not a major tourist draw. He has not conformed in any way to generic preferences, nor does he plan to. Certain tourists in the know discover that his beer prices are quite reasonable, and bravely enter the premises for a nightcap. Although most everyone is welcome, his place is just too Greek to non-Greeks.

Precariously squeezed between the neon-lit bars and beach accessory shops along Elounda’s U-shaped port strip, Manolis’s place is still a local-zone, but a cut above the average watering hole. If his café were in Manhattan it would be packed with neo-bohemians. It’s very stylishly designed with terra-colored walls, wood-framed windows, etched glass sconces and ceiling lights suspended from wooden beams. Wrought iron tables line the perimeter of his space and spill out onto the sidewalk and even into the alley when things get going on big nights. White linen curtains soften the view of the alley, indicating a well-planned harmony between traditional and modern design. Manolis’s sister is his creative advisor and there’s no telling what the place would look like otherwise.

On the landing beneath his loft are two big hand-carved wooden maps of Crete hanging side by side: One is right-side up and the other upside down. This is one clue to Manolis’s personality. He mans his small bar and kitchen and plays host to a very eclectic crowd.

Manolis is a very young man for a kafeneo owner – just 30 years old. There’s only one other kafeneo in Elounda, just a few doors down near the church, which is reserved for retirees and die-hard raki (grape-must fire water) drinkers. Women are welcome, but only one woman has an interest in crossing the threshold: Maria, the owner. Locals usually pledge allegiance to one place or the other—with a few exceptions. Maria is a surly woman who had had enough of this life decades ago, but still carries on because she has no choice.

Her place is designed in the typical functional kafeneo fashion: once pale blue walls are a tinge of rust due to years of nicotine adherence; the brightest light bulbs money can buy hang unsheltered on long cords from the ceiling, swaying in the breeze. The atmosphere is like an interrogation room. Speckled linoleum tables and traditional wooden-straw chairs complete the picture. This is the kind of place where people go to insult the owner and each other. Aside from the difference in décor and clothing worn by the clientele, it reminds me of the old steak houses in Washington DC, where VIPs gathered to practice their verbal abuse skills. It’s trying for anyone who doesn’t enjoy this kind of socializing. Baked potatoes and peanuts are the usual fare to accompany raki or beer. Tableware and ashtrays are sometimes provided upon request. By the end of the night, the tables and floors are covered with cigarette butts, potato skins, peanut shells and toppled beer bottles.

Back at Manolis’s place you can see everything and collect up-to-date information on nearly everything that goes on in the village; factual or fictional. Everyone passes through here at one point or another: farmers, fishermen, the postman, the policeman, shopkeepers, construction crews, and Manolis’s beret-and-goatee beatnik buddies from Iraklio. There are several regulars with predictable visiting times and if they’re not there, a search party sets off to be sure they’re OK. Occasionally, Manolis entertains surprise guests – locally famous musicians (Psarandonis, the lyre player, pops in from time to time) or politicians on campaign. Otherwise, he maintains a seasonal schedule of activities. As one of the only places open year-round, there are predictable cycles, yet Manolis is very unpredictable. His taste in music ranges from very traditional Cretan songs to Sting. Whatever he plays sets the tone for the evening. On occasion, string musicians pop in for a jam session, which is especially fun if Manolis breaks out the tambourine.

Manolis can swing from aloof to extremely hospitable and entertaining in seconds flat. His mother, Zaharenia (derived from Zahary, which means sugar, and is very appropriate for her personality), usually opens the café in the morning and does a lot of the cooking, which is above and beyond the traditional kafeneo fare. She’ll make large dishes of fava (pureed yellow split peas with olive oil and minced fresh onion: the Cretan hummus, if you will); manestra (krithariki or orzo pasta with tomatoes and herbs); or seasonal vegetables braised in a light tomato sauce, such as green beans, broad beans, cauliflower and potatoes. With a little olives, cheese and bread, most of us are set for the night. Manolis is a good cook in his own right and from his four-sterno burner kitchen or portable grill in the alley, he can produce quite a feast when he’s in the mood, although as a kafeneo owner, he’s under no obligation to do so.

When my family comes to visit, Manolis, along with my partner, Panayiotis, and their friends go out of their way to prepare memorable feasts. Among the best company in town—our buddies who are farmers, fishermen, lyre players, cooks, builders, taxi drivers, innkeepers, or all of the above, we socialize, eat, drink and dance till we can do no more.

Nikki Rose is a pro chef and food writer living in Crete. The focus of her work is the preservation of traditional food ways.

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