CULTURE

Investing in comfort food

I remember one of the first yogurt bars in central Athens, on the Dionysiou Areopagitou pedestrian strip, opening in the spring of 2011. Passers-by seemed skeptical, staring through the window, maybe wondering how a very Greek product — normally associated with dieting and grandmothers — could possibly compete with ice cream, the king of all warm-weather delights. Very soon the hesitation was gone and yogurt bars exploded all over the city.

The attack of the souvlaki joint was stealthier, as traditional grease traps evolved into modern meat-on-a-stick gastronomical taverna hybrids. The new-style ?souvlatzidiko? made its first appearance around 2010, but can now be found in almost every part of Athens — often right beside a brand-new yogurt bar.

Athenians have witnessed a lot of worrying changes in their neighborhoods over the course of the crisis, but boarded-up stores reopening as hip new eateries have come as a pleasant surprise.

There is a good chance that a few years down the line, the summer of 2012 will be remembered not just as the one when we had two elections, but rather the one when yogurt became all the rage together with back-to-our-roots souvlaki joints.

The success of these two foods may seem incongruous given their very different flavors, but there are some very specific reasons for it, not least of which is that they are very familiar to the local palate.

Another is the Greek temperament. We are people who like to be outdoors, and every good businessperson knows this. We may have stopped shopping, but we certainly haven?t stopped window shopping or going out just for the sake of going out. Going out, of course, is unfathomable without a little something to nibble on or a drink, but when pockets are near-empty, why not make do? And making do is how souvlaki and yogurt became all the rage, because they are foods for all budgets.

Another factor that has boosted this particular hand-held food market is the general decline in rental rates for commercial spaces, even in popular areas, along with the fact that these eateries generally take up very little space. It would not be an overstatement to say that the restaurant sector is one of the few parts of the economy that seem to be showing any signs of life right now, especially in Athens.

But behind the economic parameters of this stellar emergence of yogurt bars and souvlaki shops, there is something very simple: This is ?our? food, and these small shops, always with a handful of locals waiting for an order, remind us of Athens as it once was. An afternoon walk, while munching on a wooden skewer of pork followed by a frozen yogurt is something that is very dear and very close to our hearts, giving us a sense of security that we crave so much right now.