Founded in 1988, Coco-Mat has gone global, opening stores from SoHo to Seoul. The company’s springless mattresses — made entirely from natural materials like dried seaweed, coconut fiber, and Mongolian horsehair — can cost as much as a Volvo. The new Coco-Mat flagship, also in Kolonaki, doubles as a high-end hotel. It’s a rather awkward configuration for hotel guests, who stumble into the lobby at night only to discover they’re in a mattress showroom. Still, the whole project radiates eco-friendly bonhomie, from the cuddly organic linens to the recycled-wood bicycles for guests to borrow.
Perhaps the most sophisticated business to emerge from the crisis is the fashion house Zeus & Dione, which was founded in 2013 by Mareva Grabowski, a Harvard Business School grad and former executive for Deutsche Bank, and Dimitra Kolotoura, who previously ran a London-based travel-PR company. The pair wanted to create a modern label out of ancient craft traditions. They sourced talent from all over Greece and helped revive the silk industry in Soufli, which once supplied couture labels like Chanel and Dior. Their clothes are minimalist yet luxurious, like a beachy, folkloric version of Chloé (where head of design Lydia Vousvouni cut her teeth). Their collections, which have been featured in Vogue and are stocked by Bergdorf Goodman and Le Bon Marché, routinely sell out. In Athens, the brand now has an airy boutique inside the famous Hotel Grande Bretagne.
Grabowski’s takeaway from the crisis was that Greeks could no longer rely on the public sector, tourism, and shipping to support themselves. “This whole model of not really producing anything was dysfunctional,” she said. “When it collapsed, it forced people to start thinking differently, to realize the old way had no future.”
Of all the examples of crisis-era entrepreneurship, one of the most heartwarming is the rise of cooperative cafés. The traditional Athenian coffee shop, or kafeneío, has been a fixture here since the Ottoman occupation. For many people, it’s a second home — a place to hash out family problems, play backgammon, enjoy the day’s first drink. It is of course also where you take your coffee, which in the summer is Nescafé whirred with sugar and ice into the classic Greek frappé.
In Athens, mom-and-pop kafeneía, with their straw-seat chairs and cheap table wine in metal carafes, have been overtaken by bigger, slicker establishments. But the economic crisis has given this traditional staple of Greek culture a new lease on life. A few years ago, unemployed and overeducated young Greeks began opening their own austerity-era versions of Greek coffee shops. Helped in part by a new business law, they pooled whatever money they had or could borrow, raided their home kitchens, used humble local ingredients, and split whatever they made.
One of the first cooperative kafeneía was To Pagaki, which opened in central Athens in 2008, at the height of the global financial crisis. It established the template: modest prices, anarchist literature, Zapatista-grown co ee, and a contagious spirit of youthful solidarity. Others have since riffed on the original recipe. In Petralona, I visited a foodie co-op café, To Perivolaki, which serves delicious meze, house-made lemonade, and unpasteurized beer from the Ali microbrewery in Thessaloniki. A 15-minute walk takes you to yet another iteration: Beaver, which calls itself a cooperativa. Note the feminine ending. This place was created “by and for women,” though men are welcome. The vibe is hard-edged: found furniture, raw concrete columns, lights hanging from electric cords. The beer is cheap, the room filled with smoke and laughter.
It’s impossible to visit these co-op cafés without being struck by their scruffy charm, by the sweet welcomes of the workers, by how each place prepares a little $2 or $3 peasant platter loaded with cheese, bread, cold cuts, olives — a way for those who are hard up to eat cheaply. The cafés reminded me of a line by the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis: “How simple and frugal a thing is happiness.”
A patron at Beaver, a female-owned co-op café.Julian Broad
Alas, frugal happiness is the only kind many young Greeks can afford. Three out of four recent university graduates have left the country to find jobs. For most who remain, like Maryanne Kanellopoulo, a 32-year-old with degrees in psychology and education, there is no work. “I tried to find something, anything,” she told me. “Restaurants, tutoring Greek, nothing worked. This was my only chance.”
By this, Kanellopoulo means Saites, the co-op café she and ve friends created a few years ago in the Athens suburb of Nea Smirni. It has wooden mobiles, political literature espousing workers’ rights, and excellent homemade meze like tzatziki and chickpea fritters. “We’re trying to find solutions together,” Kanellopoulo said. “It’s hard because none of us planned to do this, but at least we know that we’re helping our friends, supporting small Greek farmers, and not taking advantage of people. That, to me, is more important than making money.”
This depression, while difficult, has also given many Greeks a chance to rethink what their lives should be about. “This is not just an economic crisis, it’s also a crisis of values,” said Gerazouni, the gallerist, echoing a sentiment I heard often. “This situation forces us to be more innovative, to be happy with less, to enjoy the sunset, the sea, or country life, to grow our own vegetables. Slowly, this is changing the whole mentality. In a way, it sets things straight.”
The Details: What to Do in Today’s Athens
AthensWas: A luxurious refuge steps from the Acropolis, this Design Hotel is done up in a postwar style that’s heavy on marble and natural woods. doubles from $200.
City Circus: If you’re game for staying in the edgy Psirri neighborhood, this quirky, upmarket hostel is a real value. shared rooms from $26; private doubles from $70.
Coco-Mat: Get a great night’s sleep on the famous mattresses from the Greek bedding company behind this eco-friendly hotel. doubles from $157.
Hotel Grande Bretagne: Europhiles will feel right at home in this classic embodiment of a 19th-century grand hotel, which now houses a boutique from Zeus & Dione. doubles from $360.
Restaurants and Cafés
Beaver: Run “by and for women,” this café-bar combines great music, a charmingly gritty atmosphere, and an eclectic, found-furniture aesthetic.
Seychelles: With its open kitchen turning out refined small plates and a long list of esoteric Greek cheeses, this restaurant in Metaxourgeio gives traditional Hellenic cuisine an elegant update. 49 Kerameikou; 30–21–1183–4789; entrées $7–$13.
To Perivolaki: A laid-back spot in Petralona serving meze and local beer on a pretty terrace. 7 Athineou; 30–21–3023–7687.
To Therapeftirio: This fish-focused taverna in Petralona is justly famous for its mashed fava beans and taramasalata. 41 Kydantidon; 30–21- 0341–2538; entrées $5–$35.
Galleries and Shops
Benaki Contemporary Museum: This private museum is best known for its millennia-spanning collection of Greek art and artifacts, but it also hosts daring exhibitions of contemporary work.
The Breeder: With a mission to promote Greek art abroad, this gallery in Metaxourgeio represents the best artists of the crisis generation.
National Museum of Contemporary Art: Greece’s new home for contemporary art is located in a former brewery from the 1960s and connects internationally renowned artists like Bill Viola and Shirin Neshat with their local counterparts.
Rebecca Camhi: The country’s top gallerist for international artists like Nan Goldin and Rita Ackermann also runs a shop with Greek ceramics and hosts an occasional supper club.
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center: The first major work of architecture to arrive in Athens since the crisis, Renzo Piano’s temple to high culture houses the Greek national library and opera.
Yoleni’s: A new multilevel gourmet emporium in Kolonaki stocked with delicacies like gold-flecked Corinthian honey.
Zeus & Dione: By blending ancient craft traditions with modern design, this young fashion label has become one of the most successful in Greece.