While learning Greek, about a million years ago, my rather innovative teacher, Dimitris, ditched the standard translation texts – they were dreadfully turgid – and instead he gave me chunks of fiction to render into my faltering Greek. Usually they were excerpts from Agatha Christie ‘whodunnits’ – I blame Dimitri for my ongoing obsession with them. Sometimes though, they were paragraphs from a novel called ‘Friends and Heroes’, set in Athens during the winter and spring of 1940-41.
Driven across Europe by the Third Reich, the main characters pitch up in an Athens still free and largely untouched by war. In the first few pages, Guy and Harriet Pringle are in search of somewhere for a drink.
“Let’s go to the café you showed me…”
“Zonar’s. It’s not cheap.”
They found seats in the sun and sat amid the affluent, leisured Greeks who were reading an English newspaper …
I think it is rare that a restaurant becomes a player in a book but in ‘Friends and Heroes’, Zonars takes on that role. The declining fortunes and comforts of the main characters and of real-life Athenians are reflected in the withering offerings at this swish café as war encroaches. Fiction based on fact this may have been, but Zonars is very much a real place. That is until today – after 80 years, the famous name of Zonars has been removed from that iconic spot in central Athens.
Some bars and cafés gain their kudos not just for their menu, important as that is, it’s not even from it being THE place to be seen. Somehow, the kudos comes from who WAS seen there, and that magic has a real resonance.
I’m guessing that the pull of Les Deux Magots in Paris isn’t a €7.50 cappuccino, but somehow in the hope that we imbibe the spirit of Sartre, Camus and Picasso with it. I have no idea what a bellini at Harry’s Bar in Venice costs these days, but that’s not the point. The point is that we can, just for a moment, step into Hemingway’s shoes. And that’s how it was with Zonars
A Google search will give you Zonars’ history, that Karolos Zonaras, after making his fortune in the chocolate business in America, returned to Greece to set up a patisserie to rival ’the best and the biggest in Vienna’. When the prominent premises on Panepistimiou Street became available in 1940, Zonaras knew he had to move his business there. Zonars quickly became a fashionable place for well-to-do Athenians to pass their time. This was the new, modern, manifestation of Athens, with Art Deco architecture and the decor to match – the internal balcony was something special.
Post-war, Zonars really came into its own – the watering hole of choice for poets, politicians, musicians and actors. Here, in the glory years, you could find Lawrence Durrell, Odysseas Elytis, Manos Hatzidakis and even the most famous non-Greek Greek, Anthony Quinn. As a bit of a romantic, there was no better treat for me than to sit on one of the famous red chairs, sip a coffee and watch Athens go by.
But in the new millennium, for Zonars, it all went downhill for a while. The building it was housed in came up for redevelopment and although the outer structure was maintained, Zonars disappeared until 2007, returning like an ageing film star who has had a radical facelift. The original Art Deco interior had gone but the new incarnation managed to convey something of the former glory, and we groupies returned – ready to be enamoured all over again.
In January this year, standing on the corner of Voukourestiou and Panepistimiou and wondering where to go for lunch, we realised that we were, of course, outside Zonars. The menu included Greek classics along with an incredible choice of sushi – needless to say we went for the classics. The food was stunning – the best of Greek cuisine with a bit of a modern take. The plate of calamari and fried ‘potato sticks’ with an ouzo sauce looked nothing like we expected and tasted divine.
While waiting to be served we took turns in looking at the photos of past celebrity customers – and there they were, Guy and Harriet Pringle of ‘Friends and Heroes’ fame. Well, obviously not really, but in the form of Kenneth Brannagh and Emma Thompson, when they filmed the TV version of the book in the Eighties, on location at Zonars in Athens.
The demise of Zonars is very much of our time. After a 15 year legal battle, the company that runs the premises at Voukourestiou 9 has lost the right to use the name. I won’t go into all the details – it’s too corporate and soulless, just let it be said that the restaurant at that address is, from today to be called, Athenée.
Of course, in this of all weeks, it’s not a major tragedy, it’s just the name of a business that’s changed. It does though make me more than a little wistful for a legend lost and an Athens that is slowly slipping away.
Excerpt from ‘Friends and Heroes’ by Olivia Manning, Arrow Books