Welcome Back, Zonars

In Athens, the revered 1930s café is ready for its next act.

In Athens, the revered 1930s café is ready for its next act.

Despite Greece’s long economic woes, Athens is abuzz with artistic ambitions following the opening of the city’s first contemporary art museum, and, now, the resurrection of Zonars. If grand, subtle glamour ever reigned in the Greek capital, it was inside the dining room of the venerable pâtissersie-café, founded by Greek-American businessman Karolos Zonaras in 1939. Long a hangout for pipe-puffing intellectuals, luminous poets, and artists, the restaurant recently re-opened after a scrupulous six-month renovation.

“Even as a child I was amazed,” says co-owner Chrysanthos Panas, who with his brother Spyros visited the famed venue with their father, who would regale them with stories of the famous patrons. In the ’50s, French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir—who were, at the time, a more highfalutin version of “Brangelina”—laid claim to a table overlooking Panepistimiou Street. Other regulars included Italian actress Sophia Loren and Zorba The Greek actor Anthony Quinn. Pamas believes times like those are on the horizon again. “Athens is the most upcoming and happening city in the world—and the birthplace of civilization,” he says.

In the heart of the theater district’s City Link, where ritzy fashion boutiques sit arm-in-arm with gastronomic venues like the vibrant City Bistro and Bar de Theatre, walking into Zonars conjures a stylish deco spirit. Panas tasked local architectural firm K-Studio with the renovation. The result is a high-ceilinged room with a series of parlors, each with Kubrick-like orchestration of staged symmetry, including small seating vignettes, a large oval communal table for large gatherings, and soft, sculptural lighting.

Perhaps most challenging was the focal point, a satin-finished tin bartop with elements of brass, and recreated terrazzo mosaic floors that mimic the originals. Overhead, a 3-D brass canopy doubles as an acoustic barrier. Adjacent to the bar, a lounge with a fireplace and bookshelves is outfitted with leather-wing sofas, custom chairs in blush pink and teal, and seductive lighting fixtures of polished and satin brass.

Imbued in cinematic amber hues, London-based lighting master Michael Anastassiades softened the walnut-paneled dining room with spherical wall mount lamps and free-blown chandeliers. White tablecloths and steely olive drapes are juxtaposed with gold-studded red velvet chairs by Almeco. Outside, a meld of café seating looks onto the surrounding neoclassical buildings.

The café has a clear art mission as well, with rotating exhibitions that have featured works by Picasso and Matisse. A Warhol show is forthcoming. Zonar’s midcentury setting matches chef Nikos Skliras’s Greek classics—like Gemista vegetables with rice—and British chef Anna Santasetto’s sushi menu. There’s also afternoon tea and an elegant vintage cocktail trolley pushing dirty martinis. Like a faded postcard, Zonars is an evocative link to the past, something so intertwined with local culture that Kapodistrian University once offered a postgraduate class on the cafe’s history, fittingly called “Zonars, Then and Now.” There’s hope that now can look like then again, but with current artistic designs. If recent visitors—including the likes of Valentino Garavani, Marina Abramovic, and F. W. de Klerk—are any indication, it seems the restaurant is set for another run. Panas concurs: “In a way, history is being rewritten.”

(Photos: Courtesy Zonars)

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