There is just something special about Ideal, one of Athens’ oldest restaurants, which recently celebrated 90 years in business. Perhaps it’s the marble and glass Art Nouveau entrance with gold lettering, which makes the venue look right at home next to some of the city’s architectural gems, such as the 1930s-era, New York-influenced Rex Theater, which now houses the National Theater of Greece. Or maybe it’s the restaurant’s proximity to the imposing yet decrepit Majestic Hotel just across the street and long-suffering Omonia Square nearby. Taken together, all point towards an almost forgotten bourgeois Athenian identity.
The interior of Ideal, which features Art Nouveau décor in pastel colors, is delightfully dated. Glass paneling divides the restaurant into three grand sections: The maroon leather banquettes at the back are perfect for an old-fashioned illicit rendezvous, while the tables in the middle section and the front are ideal for more everyday occasions.
Regardless of where they are seated, the clientele – middle-aged people sitting alone on their lunch break from work, “ladies who lunch,” politicians, journalists, theater critics, artists and families – all eat with silver utensils on linen tablecloths. After all these years, Ideal remains a rare find: a restaurant that is truly Athenian, Greek and European all at once, with an endearingly old-fashioned ambiance that pervades the premises. The maître d’ is always dressed in a suit and watches over the diners to make sure that everything is in order. Most of the waitstaff – consisting entirely of men, outfitted in maroon-colored uniforms – have been working here for more than 20 years, and the service is perhaps the most impeccable in the city.
The waiters are discrete, polite and helpful without being overbearing, and seem to have an almost paternal affection for many of their older customers. Thanks to the friendly, almost family-like service, Ideal remains a very welcoming place despite the formal touches. The restaurant follows the tradition of old European bistros, offering homemade cooking with a retro Continental twist. (It’s not far from the approach taken by most upscale Athens restaurants in the ’50s and ’60s, when menus offered typical Greek dishes with a strong French/European influence – at the time, the standard for what a proper high-end menu should look like.) Prices are on the high side – about €18-30 per person, depending on the order – but bear in mind that the portions are always large.
Aside from the food, there are certain elements of dining at Ideal that evoke an almost vintage cruise ship atmosphere. There is always a small white vase on the table with a very real-looking (yet plastic) flower, for example, and the obligatory bread rolls are served with individual portions of French butter. The food is generally excellent. One of the specials is almost always fish, served with either the traditional oil and lemon or Ideal’s homemade mayonnaise. This is complemented by an almost retro dish: a fantastic Weiner Schnitzel, thin yet enormously filling and satisfying without being heavy, that is easily the best schnitzel we’ve ever had in Athens. The salads are also large, substantial and made with top-quality ingredients.
On a recent visit, a lettuce, avocado and walnut salad was dressed in a superb orange dressing and the avocado had a delicate melt- in-the-mouth quality to it. One of our favorite Greek dishes at Ideal is the soutzoukakia, a traditional recipe from Asia Minor that most Greeks love: oblong beef patties with cumin and spices that are served drizzled with a tomatoey sauce and with a mountain of rice. We’re also very fond of the beef patties from Aivali, aka modern-day Ayvalık on the northwest coast of Turkey. The tender patties are grilled and spiced with a fiery red pepper from Florina in Northern Greece and also incorporate plenty of garlic. It’s an old-fashioned dish served inside a thoroughly old-fashioned venue, and we can’t imagine ever tiring of either one. Address: Panepistimiou 46, Omonoia Telephone: +30 210 330 3000 Hours: noon-11pm; closed Sunday

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