Last time Dimitris Basis was in Australia he headlined the biggest Greek festival outside of Greece in Melbourne and Sydney (fittingly named The Greek Festival). In his home town of Athens he sings at the most renowned concert theatres; if he was Australian he’d be a household name. So why was the musician’s only gig in Sydney this year held at a 70-person restaurant in the backstreets of Newtown?
Steki Taverna – a 35-year-old Greek joint famous for traditional barbequed lamb and fried potatoes, which doubles an ouzo-fuelled Greek night club – is where Basis and other big-name Greek musicians like to play. Why? It reminds them of where they started: humble Greek tavernas.
“A taverna is a very traditional place where people get together. It’s not fully a restaurant … more casual,” says owner Paul Ioakimidis. In Greece tavernas are common all over the country. It’s where you go for a late-afternoon drink and snack, to watch some music, or to stay for a loose night. They’re integral to Greek society. And in many ways they’re like the traditional British pubs, but with much better food: grilled meats, moussaka, fresh salads covered in salty cheese, dolmades, dips, baked fish and bean soups.
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Some Sydney venues have the traditional Greek food; some have the music; some have the feel; others have the ouzo and a late-night atmosphere to match. But Steki Taverna is the only one that has it all. “A lot of people say this reminds them of Greece. I hear that a lot,” says Ioakimidis. “Even if you don't know anybody you feel like you're part of something here. It brings a lot of people together,” he says.
Weekdays here are quiet; usually you’d find just a few tables occupied with elderly Greeks and Newtown locals. A few ouzo shots might arrive beside a plate of salty barbequed lamb, but orders are more commonly filled with moussaka (like a Greek lasagna with eggplant), an earthy Greek wine and a horiatiki (classic Greek salads that are almost 50 per cent cheese). If you’re looking for some bargain Mediterranean fare weekdays are also the best time to visit because the house set menu is discounted by $10.
The restaurant’s dynamics completely change on the weekends. Every table is filled and orders are big.
On Friday and Saturday night the usual restaurant decorum is gone by about 9pm. By then the band has warmed up (on Friday the playlist is more traditional, while Greek pop dominates on Saturday). Enough ouzo is always circulated to push people out of their seats and onto the dance floor.
On the tables on nights like these there is volcanically hot saganaki, ravasaki (filo pastry filled with feta and sprinkled in honey), vinegar-marinated octopus, souvlaki and grilled sardines. The last tables, by this stage filled with just a few baklava bits and granular coffees, don’t finish until 2am.