Con Christopoulos – the restaurateur behind Melbourne institutions like City Wine Shop, The European and Degraves Espresso – has finally opened his dream restaurant. It’s taken form as a temporary winter pop-up in the former Self Preservation space on Bourke Street, and it’s been an instant hit since launching in May.
Kafeneion (a spin on “kafenio”, the Greek term for a traditional coffeehouse) is a far cry from the sushi train that’s set to take its place come spring. But if all goes to plan, the home-style diner could find a permanent home in a larger location later this year.
“For the last couple of years, we fantasised about opening this type of restaurant,” says Christopoulos, who co-owns the joint with Stavros Konis, the third-generation owner of Richmond restaurant Salona. “We’ve gone back to urban classics that even in Greece are hard to find.”
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The concept came about as a way to employ Konis’s staff while Salona undergoes renovations – and to show local diners that Greek cuisine is more than souvas and tzatziki: it’s vibrant, unfussy, delicious home-style fare. “A lot of [Greek restaurants] are kind of the same and follow this very specific formula, but Greek food is so much more diverse than that,” says Christopoulos.
At Kafeneion, hunks of crusty white bread are complementary and essential for dunking in magiritsa, an offal soup traditionally served at Easter; scooping up fava dip (which is served hot with raw red onion and capers, like you’d find in Santorini); or making your own sandwiches with charred, juicy meatballs flecked with fresh parsley.
Main plates come in small or large servings. You might find grilled garfish with lemon; hearty slow-cooked lamb with potatoes and a pop of wild oregano; and lightly crumbed and fried sweetbreads, served with zingy iceberg and dill salad or salty slabs of feta that come in 100-gram blocks. Traditional desserts include portokalopita, a pound cake flecked with pieces of filo and soaked in orange syrup.
Ultra-thick traditional Greek coffee is served all day alongside carafes of wines and beer. You’ll also find longnecks of Melbourne Bitter, which Christopoulos says are “what all the old Greeks drink on weekends”.
Christopoulos’s reputation for operating until the small hours at venues such as Siglo and Supper Club continues here, with a late-night supper menu featuring lighter snacks, soups and cheeses served until 1am. We’ve also heard whispers that a backgammon den will be opening upstairs in the coming weeks. Get there before it all moves on.