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A Restaurant called Restaurant in Berlin – Fofi’s Story

The New York Times wrote in 1987 in an article titled ‘Berlin by Night’ that ‘John le Carré sends one of his characters in a melancholy mood to Berlin: “Scared of himself he hastened to a fashionable Greek nightclub he knew of, run by a woman of cosmopolitan wisdom”.’ This woman is Fofi and this is her story (and how we met her):  

In September our Berlin project team travelled to Thessaloniki to speak with the artistic director Denys Zacharopoulos from the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art about their satellite exhibition. Initially the plan was to show works from our fifth chapter ‘The Realities of Politics’ in their Greek context. That was when Denys told us that he had come up with a slightly different idea. He wanted to show the artists’ networks in Europe during the Postwar Period, when many of them stayed in cities like Berlin, Paris, Prague or Rome. It was there that many artists met and worked, forming bonds and influencing each other.

And this is also when we met Fofi Akrithaki, an old friend of Denys’ who was in town by chance.

She was the owner of the ‘Estiatórion’, a Greek restaurant called ‘Restaurant’ in Greek in the Berlin district of Charlottenburg which quickly became popular with residing artists and those travelling through. The reason for that popularity? Fofi. If you ask anyone nowadays about the ‘Estiatórion’ they will probably look at you clueless and suddenly shout ‘Oh, you mean Fofi’s!’.

Fofi in Thessaloniki telling her story
Fofi in Thessaloniki telling her story

Her story is one which will not only be part of the exhibition in Thessaloniki, but which we also want to tell here.

The beginnings in Berlin

In 1969, Fofi and her husband and artist Alexis Akrithaki came to Berlin because of a DAAD scholarship. They lived in a villa in the Grunewald district, she was pregnant and because of the Junta in Greece, they did not want to go back. After the scholarship ran out two years later, they decided to stay in Berlin and Fofi had to find a job. She and her husband had met all the Austrian exiles at that time: Ossi Wiener, Gerhard Rühm and the rest of the ‘Vienna Group’.

Fofi started working for them at their (also famous) restaurant ‘Exil’ in Kreuzberg before she, Oswald Wiener and Michel Würthle decided to open a Greek restaurant together. They called it the ‘ΑχΒαχ‘. She laughs as she tells us that instead of pronouncing it correctly (‚AchWach‘), the German customers called it ‚AxBax‘. To decorate it all of them went to Athens to buy glasses, plates and all the things to give their restaurant a Greek touch. Fofi describes the ‘ΑχΒαχ‘ in Leibnizstraße as a crazy place and as a fantastic time. But the gastronomical journey wasn’t over for her.

With her child she returned to Greece only to come back to Berlin. This time she found work in a bar at Savignyplatz:

‘There was the Cour Carree, a big restaurant at Savignyplatz and at the end it had a little bar with a garden. Somebody told me they were looking for a bar woman and I went there to ask for a job. And I asked what the pay was and they said 30 Marks. And I asked ‘If I give you 30 Marks to work here, can I work for myself?’ and they said ‘Of course!’ So this was maybe the first purgatory in Berlin: There was everybody there. From Otto Schily to some people from Baader-Meinhof, Udo Waltz and I don’t know who. A mixture of Berlin. Packed every night and very crazy. We had some Greek nights; sometimes we broke the glasses, sometimes we didn’t. But I insisted that I’d cook at home. I did the buffet at home and then I had to carry all the food to this place. I can’t drive, so I took a taxi. But the taxi drivers were very nice at that time. I had to go up to my apartment three times to carry all the food to the car. I don’t like it when people drink without eating. They get drunk, aggressively drunk. And I had this buffet, sometimes they paid, sometimes they did not pay. If I did not like them, I said 10 Marks, if I liked them, I said 2 Marks and then we were all drunk and nobody paid.’

We ask her for her favorite anecdotes from that time and she tells us the following (pretty funny) story:

‘I was sitting behind the bar and a guy comes in. He orders: ‘One small beer and a bottle of champagne’. I said ‘Of course, but could you pay first?’ And he says: ‘Sure, but please open the bottle and have a glass with me’. I said I didn’t like champagne and he was okay with that. Then he ordered another small glass of beer and another bottle of champagne. And he did not only order two, but three, four, five bottles! The bar was packed and then he said ‘Good night’ and left. After about a week he comes back and orders a small beer. I asked him if it had been his birthday last week and he said ‘No, but I have been married for over twenty years and I couldn’t get rid of my wife. And then she came here, met her new boyfriend in your bar and now she is finally gone! And I just wanted to return the favor to you’.’

How the ‘Estiatórion’ became ‘Fofi’s’

Fofi tells us that those times were very exhausting and again everything changed when Kostas Kassabalis and Vassilis Kourafalos came by in 1976 and told her that they found a great place where they wanted to open a new restaurant:

‘So I went to Fasanenstraße and it was a wonderful place. It had actually been an officers’ mess so there was a bar inside and after the war it was a bar for transvestites or something like that. And we didn’t have any money for furniture or anything like that so all the tables and chairs that I took from the Savignyplatz I put in there. We had the first Mediterranean locality, completely white without blue Greek stuff. It was simple and beautiful with very nice lighting (done by my husband) and we had a terrace. From the very first day on it was a success. Also because of the mix of people that came. All kinds of people: politicians, artists, new money (you need those because they have the money). Everybody was there. It was a good mix. You can see how a society can function.

There was Luc Bondy who had a show at the Schaubühne and he did not have any money, so he came and saw a guy that did have money and he asked him: ‘Dieter, you know, the Schaubühne does not have any money and after the show we want to invite guests for drinks, could you help us out?’ And Dieter said: ‘Sure!’ It always went like that. It was a small world. Everybody knew everybody. For example there was Heiner Müller, a regular at the restaurant, together with Thomas Brasch. The restaurant’s name was ‘Estiatórion‘, the Greek name for restaurant but it was known as ‚Fofi’s‘. Everybody thought it was awesome. Richard Burton was there for a whole month every night. Otto Sander was there every night. Udo Samel too. Kounellis, Rauschenberg, Bacon. Everybody felt at home. And I also left them alone. No paparazzi or anything like that. Every now and then I asked them for a photo but that was it.’

Fofi in her restaurant Estiatório
Photo from her Athens' exhibition

Fofi was the person that brought all of them together and made them feel at home and they thanked her for it by making art especially for her:

‘I have this really nice tablecloth that was done by Jannis Kounellis and Rebecca Horn who celebrated their birthday at my place and which they painted together and also Heiner Müller worked on it with them. They went to the kitchen to get knives and flowers and it looks very nice and it is quite historical. All their names and birthdays are on there, signatures and so on. The tablecloth will also be in the exhibition. By Rauschenberg I have a burnt 20-Marks-note. The composer Wolfgang Rihm gave me some sheet music. It’s all those little things. You go home utterly drunk and you don’t even think about it, but I remembered and collected all the things.’

Many of these pieces were shown in an exhibition in Athens dedicated to Fofi’s times in Berlin, some of them will be in our satellite exhibition which opens on February 8, 2014 at the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art.

Fofi says that Berlin at that time was electric. And that she and the friends she had gathered around her lived by that. One night, she says, the police called her and said ‘Mrs. Akrithaki, your restaurant has been vandalized!’ And she laughed and said: ‘No, actually we did that ourselves’.

More about the upcoming satellite exhibition ‘The Desire for Freedom. Europe 1945 – 2000: Encounters between Shifting Boundaries’.

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