Greek cuisine seems to be a growing trend on our coast, but Kalamata stands out from the rest by creating a unique, quintessentially Grecian dining experience. With Santorini-inspired decor, white-washed walls and royal blue finishes, diners are teleported to traditional Greek islands one bite at a time… Just ignore the neighbouring table’s request for ‘tjips’, which are delicious by the way – especially when dipped in the home-made tzatziki…
But what really makes a lasting impact on diners is the Greek dancing and plate-breaking ceremony they perform every Friday and Saturday night (and soon to be wednesdays too)! While the waiters step along with the flames lapping up the floor, they hand each table a pile of plates to throw, inviting diners to join in on the ritual. It truly is a transportive affair.
“Kalamata is the city in Greece where my dad comes from, and where the olives come from”, Aleko informs me. You’ll recognise Aleko by his cabby hat and undeniable charisma. He plays a significant role in the dance ceremony, and is known for balancing a glass of whiskey on his head while smashing plates over his fellow dancers’ heads. He is jolly, friendly and certainly knows how to round up a party! The last time I visited Kalamata, Aleko somehow got my mother to stand up and dance on one of the chairs! “You’ve been here a few times”, he says with a wide grin. What can I say, dinner and a show is my idea of a good night out… especially when I get to smash a couple of plates after a long week!
Kalamata is run by the whole family, and I mean, the whole family. “My dad marinades all the olives in the shop, that’s his job, and also to sit with my father-in-law and ‘skinder’ the whole night”, Aleko chuckles as he leads me to their table, lined with ouzo and beer, to say hello. He continues to dart across the restaurant to introduce me to different members of the family, as well as explain their designated duties. His older brother heads up the souvla section; his mother heads up the kitchen with the extra needed assistance of his step-mother and mother-in-law who all cook their respective dishes; his wife Stella is in charge of the buffet area with a selection of Greek salads and side dishes like Moussaka and Brinjal Saganaki (my favourite) and also takes part of the dancing ceremony; and his sister-in-law and younger half-brother, Andrea, are in charge of the bar. His older half-brother, Ari, is one of the head waiters and also dances with Aleko and Stella (you’ll also find Aleko’s mom dancing away from time to time!) Both Aleko and Ari operate by day the other restaurants owned by this family: Tasha’s Umhlanga and Tasha’s Ballito. “Kalamata is obviously the most special for us since it’s a true taste of home”, Aleko says. “The food we serve here is the same food we grew up eating”. You can certainly taste the homely element in everything from the Yiros and roast potatoes, to the delectable Greek shortbread and Baklava.
What inspired the dancing ceremony, you ask? “My mother’s best friend, Irene Joannou, was the Greek dancing teacher in Durban and taught us all from when we were about five and six years old”. Aleko goes on to tell me that she passed away ten years ago in a bad diving accident, and after she was gone, it felt as if the whole Greek community had died. “There was no more Greek dancing and no one to get us together, so eventually all of us here, including her son, Michael. and daughter, Eva, as well as Stella and myself, decided to teach the community again. We teach about twenty-five kids and twenty-five adults at the Greek centre, and thought we’d bring the culture back to life in the restaurant here too”.
As the lights dim and the Greek folk music begins, I watch as Aleko, Ari and Stella take control of the floor, pouring paraffin and lighting fires, matching the beat to the quickened pace of the lute, and fully immersing themselves in their traditional dance.The crowd is transfixed as plates go flying amidst the wafts of salted lamb-on-the spit and red wine. What a great experience, and what a great, big Greek family. Opa!