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Zonars Athens: The Revival Of A Legend

A handful of people with a vision have recently revived the special corner of Voukourestiou and Panepistimiou to its original glory and Zonars, that singular restaurant of modern lore, is once again housed in the grand building belonging to the Hellenic Army Pension Fund.
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Photo by Yiorgos Kordakis

If a time traveler from 1939 was to land in the middle of today's Athens, Greece, there would be a lot of changes to take in. There are more cars, stores and people to be sure. Plenty of causes for surprise. But there would also be a few familiar sights which would be a source of comfort for that visitor from the mid-20th century. The ancient Parthenon still looks down over the city from the rock of the Acropolis, as does St. George's chapel from the hill of Lycabetus. And then, of course, there's Zonars.

A handful of people with a vision have recently revived the special corner of Voukourestiou and Panepistimiou to its original glory and Zonars, that singular restaurant of modern lore, is once again housed in the grand building belonging to the Hellenic Army Pension Fund.

"When I was a kid, my father would bring me to Zonars and he'd point out all of the famous artists who frequented it, such as Manos Chatzidakis," Chrysanthos Panas tells Yatzer from within the warm ambiance of Zonars' golden-glowed restaurant. Chrysanthos and his brother, Spyros - the formidable, duo behind Panas Group - have, for the past twenty five years, created some of the most outstanding hospitality destinations in Greece, such as the Island Club Restaurant on the hillside of the "Athens Riviera" and Greece's first, members-only club, Salon de Bricolage, in Kolonaki.

A decade ago, when Pireaus Bank long-term leased the city-block-spanning building, their vision was to establish it as the beacon of a new "upscale" city center with luxury boutiques and dining destinations. In what would turn out to be a very wise decision indeed, they turned to the ideal people for the job -- Chrysanthos and Spyros Panas -- in order to accomplish this vision together.

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Photo courtesy Zonars Archive

"The Bank approached us, knowing that we shared the same vision of establishing City Link as Athens' new city neighborhood and that we'd give our all in order to see the success of the project," Chrysanthos says (this "project" includes City Bistro and Bar de Theatre inside Stoa Spyromiliou which runs through the heart of the building). "But I told them that if they wanted us to work on the Stoa properties, Zonars would have to be a part of the deal," Chrysanthos says with the cheeky smile of a man who played his hand and won. That was in 2014. Fast forward two years and not only are both City Bistro andBar de Theatre strongholds in the Athenian day and night scene, but despite obstacles - including Capital Control restrictions which began on the first day of scheduled renovations, in the Summer of 2015 - Zonars has been revived to its glory days and has fast regained the ground it lost in minds and hearts over the course of decades of neglect.

Originally established in 1939, Zonars was the brainchild of a visionary man, Karolos Zonaras, a Greek chocolatier based in the States who intended to establish Zonars as "the best restaurant in the best location in Athens."Fittingly, it all began with a romantic story: Zonaras fell in love with an Athenian woman who didn't want to leave her home city and return with him to the States; his love for her caused him to shift his operations to this new hospitality endeavor, all the while continuing to run his chocolate factory in the U.S. - something which came in handy when creating Zonars' dessert menu! "He brought in chefs from the finest establishments in Europe," Chrysanthos tells Yatzer. "He wanted to introduce Athens to the best that European cuisine had to offer and to upgrade the city."

This rings a bell with Zonars' current owners; Chrysanthos shares that it's their intention to repeat that feat. "Our vision is to establish Zonars as THE destination in Athens. After all, it's a place where amazing people from all over the world have sat and created music, written poems and drawn masterpieces." And Zonars' history truly boasts a heady list of impressive patrons, such as Melina Merkouri, Odysseas Elytis, Sophia Loren, and Anthony Quinn. "It happened before and it's happening again," Chrysanthos says. Today's patron list includes the local and international "Who's Who" of Mister Valentino, Konstantinos Markoulakis, Marina Abramovic, Nana Mouskouri, and F.W. de Klerk among others.

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Photo by Yiorgos Kordakis

It's easy to see why people are inspired to realize their creativity in this singular city corner. Redesigned by architecture firm, K-Studio, under the artistic direction of Domgr and the close watch of the Panas brothers, Zonars' comfortable yet striking interior décor and friendly atmosphere can be described as "enveloping." There are many elements to take in, all working harmoniously in unison such as the walnut wood paneling and the gilded, art-deco inspired bar; the marble mosaic floors - painstakingly recreated to match the 1939 original -- and Tinos marble façade, and moody lighting designed by celebrated lighting designer, Michael Anastasiades which casts a warm glow on the 1950's era bronze-studded, red velvet chairs -- a treasure find, Chrysanthos discovered in a basement. The large, communal table in the center of the space encourages lively parties while the warm lounge nook with the fireplace is ideal for more private affairs. All in all, each and every element, both inside and out, has been meticulously considered and planned, with no detail spared.

"We visited (acclaimed movie set designer) Dionysis Fotopoulos. Dionysis is a very close friend and he 'grew up' at Zonars, so he worked with us on all the details," Chrysanthos says as he describes part of the exciting and yet stringent process which went into the redesign research. "Since we wanted to make Zonars appear as if it had never lost its original luster we began studying old photos. I was certain that somebody must still be around from the Zonaras' family, and we found his daughter. She's currently 92 years old and an amazing woman who gave us so much 'insider' information."

Meanwhile, the menu, created by renowned chef, Nikos Skliras, is utterly delicious and unique while still incorporating many historical elements. One bite of the brunch classic, melt-in-your-mouth sandwich toast (all bakery products are made on the premises) and we're hooked. A guest can order as fancy - sushi created by British sushi chef, Anna Santasetto - or as simple - cocktails at the bar - as he or she desires. And then there are the desserts. "Zonaras created the first, 'Chicago Ice Cream Sundae' here," Chrysanthos tells us, enthusiastically. It's his original recipe - procured by yet another charming lady with first-hand experience of the original - that is served today, going by the new moniker, "Mrs. Erietta's Favorite," in honor of the lady. Then there are "Valentino's Favorite," and even "Queen Sofia's Mints" to choose from. "We added all these details in order to keep the history of the place alive!" Chrysanthos shares. It's no wonder that the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens currently offers a PhD Museum Studies course entitled: Zonars, Then and Now.

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Photo by Yiorgos Kordakis

And Zonars continues to strengthen its cultural ties with art and book presentations, such as the recent Picasso, Matisse and Giacometti presentation, wherein the artworks were hung nonchalantly on the paneled walls and guests could enjoy their meal under their shadows. "It's a museum of the everyday which will always be associated with the highest echelons of culture," Chrysanthos says. In fact, there is a very special, upcoming presentation scheduled for September in collaboration with Stathoulis Gallery: We hear that Andy Warhol is coming to town... so don't be surprised if he brings Marilyn with him!

"We want Athens to regain her smile," Chrysanthos says. "Economic crises will always exist in some form, but hopefully crises of the mind can be averted. I don't think that people have ever progressed only because there was a financial flourishing. In fact, often, times of instabilities prompt people to actually do things..." he says. "Athens must re-enter the minds of the international set. It is so fantastic here - it's a capital city by the sea! People worldwide don't realize this. We have to tell them that people are doing great things in this city." And just like Mr. Zonaras did in the mid-20th century, we had the great pleasure of speaking to one of those people doing great things.

Originally published on Yatzer