Eating Out

Rhodes scholars

Lisa Hilton enjoys a simple and superlative Greek-Italian taverna in the Aegean

Twenty years ago, Faliraki cleaned up its act. The notorious Rhodian equivalent of Shagaluff had had enough of the familiar story of boozed-up Brits whose antics had transformed a once-idyllic fishing village into an all-inclusive anarchy of “vomit-covered streets, couples having sex in alleyways, late-night punch-ups”.

One-euro shots, “Faliraki Fishbowls” and Eurovision Thong Contests were banned and profits fell by 90 per cent until slowly the resort reinvented itself as a budget-conscious family destination. But Faliraki’s beer-gutted shadow still wobbles over Rhodes; fantastic news for anyone interested in exploring the rest of the island, which remains, discreetly, rather chic.

This place was old before Athena’s statue was raised on her summit two thousand years ago

Lawrence Durrell would probably have been cancelled by now if anyone still bothered reading him, but whatever one thinks of his private life the joyful, haunting lyricism of his writing on Greece remains unsurpassed. In his prose poem to Rhodes, Marine Venus, he gleefully describes “Islomania”, a rare “but by no means unknown” affliction of the spirit which produces “an indescribable intoxication” in the susceptible.
Climbing to the peak of the Lindos Acropolis, I defy anyone not to feel it. The Dorians were here, and the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Byzantines and the Knights of St John, but the colours of the water — such water — still glut the eyes to stillness. This place was old before Athena’s statue was raised on her summit two thousand years ago and time stays different here.

Admittedly, no-one could call Lindos exactly undiscovered, but it remains one of the most ravishing towns in the Aegean. And at noon, once the early morning tourist coaches have departed, it recaptures something of that ancient peace, a physical weight of sun-strafed silence, which created a scene for those seeking the luxuries of the soul long before Faliraki got its first tattoo parlour.

They emerge late for lunch, from the Ottoman courtyards of the thick-walled villas, or skipping in their tenders from the serious boats anchored up in Gialos bay, all popped collars and deceptively simple little linen shifts, to congregate at Palestra at the furthest end of the main beach. This Italo/Greek restaurant has been in the same family since the Fifties and is currently run by Roseanna and her son Thomas, who grew up on the island.

Like many truly superlative restaurants, Palestra doesn’t twiddle about too much with innovation, which is why many of its customers have been coming back since childhood. There are beds on the beach for a cocktail or a last injection of bone-roasting sun before a few dusty driftwood steps up to the terrace, with its islomaniac’s view. No particular need to put your shoes on.

The menu is divided between Greek and Italian staples — aubergine salad, giant beans, bruschetta, caprese salad. Grilled spiced feta came as a creamy slab with crisp homemade pita bread, smoky paprika tempering the gentle sharpness of the cheese.

Grilled octopus or sardines come just as they should, charred and briny, redolent of desiccated wood and the wild herbs whose scent drifts down from the clifftops.

Saganaki is often derided as an inauthentic invention, the Greek equivalent of chicken tikka masala, which wouldn’t be a crime per se if it didn’t so often appear as the kind of thing they used to scrape from Faliraki’s pavements in the morning.

The term itself simply refers to anything cooked in a small frying pan and instead of the usual slimy horror of dairy spume and frozen prawns sloshed out further along the coast, Palestra’s take uses mussels, a deep, sweet tomato sauce and maybe an aniseedy touch of ouzo, uncomplicated yet sophisticated.

The Dodecanese have a long and not straightforward history with Italy, but it does mean that pasta on Rhodes is as right as it is in Rimini. Spaghetti with lobster doesn’t need much explaining beyond delicious, but “Adish” spaghetti with courgettes and shrimp was as confounding as it was good.

Everything at Palestra tastes like a distillation of holiday

Maybe related to pasta alla Nerano, from the Amalfi coast, which combines deep-fried courgette and basil, yet lightened by the tiny, sweet local shrimp and maybe a touch of horta, the wild greens eaten all over Greece? Or maybe just a quirky spelling? Either way it was delicate, buttery and intensely flavourful.

Italians love Palestra for the fish, bouncingly fresh bream and bass (indeed Thomas can often be spotted playing hooky with his fishing rod along the rocks), which comes as is, grilled with rock salt and lemon and needing nothing else.

Puddings are equally simple: ice cream, fruit, a fluffy tiramisu, but little more than a crunchy grin of watermelon was required to finish a pretty perfect lunch. The wine list includes some snazzy Champagne for the boat crowd, but most customers stick to the thoughtfully sourced Greek end of the list, which starts at €20 a bottle, with appropriate emphasis on crisp whites.

Everything at Palestra tastes like a distillation of holiday, but maybe the best thing is the lack of hustle. Nobody is going to mind if you flop back into the sea between courses or spin out a plate of tzatziki until sunset. It has resisted downmarket avarice and upscale angst, modest, unfussy and therefore satisfyingly, enduringly cool.

Taverna Palestra, Lindos main beach, Rhodes, Greece

This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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