There is a Greek word called kopiaste which means “welcome, come in and join us”. Like the wonderful German word schadenfreude there is really no equivalent in English. To me, kopiaste sums up what I enjoy about Greek restaurants. What I enjoy is that famous Greek hospitality which ensures that Greek restaurants are lively and homely. Lemonia in Primrose Hill is a restaurant that has its kopiaste down pat. Stepping in, you feel like you are in a Greek taverna in the Cyclades thanks to the terracotta tiling, white washed walls and sepia toned pictures of Greece. It verges on being almost a theme park (only the fishing nets are missing) but the Primrose Hill locals are not deterred. The restaurant is fairly large, expanding into an airy atrium towards the back but it is so popular that chairs and tables are packed in so that it is almost impossible to get in or out of your seat without some shuffling and accomodation by the surrounding tables. However, rather than being annoying, this close proximity to neighbouring diners make the whole atmosphere rather cosy.
Olives, radishes and carrots are provided when you sit down
The waiting staff immediately make you feel at home at Lemonia. The floor staff are made up predominantly of charming white haired elderly Greek men that you immediately want to adopt as your grandfather. It is the small touches that are the most memorable. Like the plate of olives and radishes that is given to you as soon as you sit down, the tap water which is provided in an iced jug and replenished before you can even ask and the fluffy squares of powdered Turkish delight which appear at the end of the meal with your bill.
The food is traditional, hearty taverna fare. The menu includes special sections for fish and for charcoal grills reflecting the Greek love of seafood and meat. Prices are cheap ranging from £4.50 for a bowl of garlic heavy zatsiki complee with warmed bread to dip in it to £12.50 for a chargrilled lamb shaslik. However the best value option is to order the Mezze for £18.50 which basically includes a sample of almost everything on the menu.
To further the Greek language lesson, mezze means “little delicacies” and is used in this context to refer to the whole meal rather than just the starters. To begin, our waiter loads the table with dips and starters. Tiny terracotta bowls fill the table so there is almost no room for the wine and water. There is fish roe blended into a pale pink paste called tarama, creamy yoghurt and cucumber based zatziki, chunky chickpea heavy hommus and tahini, a smooth sesame paste. Alongside all of this there is hot mezze of halloumi that verges on being rubbery teamed with tiny spicy sausages and crisp deep fried squid.
Of course there is more to come including a large plate of cold prawns, salads of chickpea and a slightly wilted tabbouleh. Then onto the meat, our plates are cleared to make way for tender chicken and lamb shashliks imparting a smoky charcoal flavour. Rather good kofte made of minced lamb and fresh herbs immediately evoke memories of sunburnt, white washed holidays in Greece. There is also what we call “Greek” salad but which is known in Greece as “country” or “farm” salad. Here it is the Westernised version which includes lettuce alongised the fetta, cucumber, tomato and olives but that doesn’t really matter as it is the perfect accompaniment to all that meat.
The wine list features a lot of Greek wine, which seems to be having a moment right now (I was served it at The Square). However the dry Cretan white wine (admittedly cheap at £15.75) has a sickly sweet aftertaste and doesn’t really further the countries viniculture.
It’s not polished food but the atmosphere is buzzing and Lemonia is perfect for a meal with a group of friends where you don’t want to worry about the bill.
Details: 89 Regent’s Park Road, Primrose Hill NW1 8UY (Ph 020 7586 7454) Tube: Chalk Farm
If you liked reading this you might be interested in my review of the Greek restaurant Aphrodite. The food is slightly more refined than that at Lemonia but it is also pricier. Or what about this recipe for beef moussaka.