Matala! The name conjures visions of Roman catacombs (Grottes de Matala) rising high above a pristine bay that kisses a flawless sandy beach. In the evenings, one can almost hear Joni Mitchell’s “Under a starry dome…beneath the Matala Moon” emanating sweetly from the front of the Neolithic cave she stayed in in the hip 60s.
Matala is much the same now, a place where existentialism is natural. And the experience always includes dining at one of the famous fish tavernas lining the golden sand. In fact, we love to visit there because so much about the place remains the same. It’s touristy, for sure, but the free and easy spirit of the site is intact. And the food and service are “usually” consistently fabulous. For years, we’ve always dined at Alexis Zorba’s mainly because my wife loves the perfect fish soup they serve. Other offers have always been to order, and the epitome of Cretan cuisine too.
Sadly, this was not the case when my son Paul and I took our friends from Germany to spend the day at the beach. Alexis Zorba’s either changed cooks, or we arrived on the worst day for lunch. Whoever was in the kitchen could not cook cheese saganaki the way 99.9% of other Cretan tavernas do. Mine was like a rubber tire hidden under batter crumbs and cooked in a microwave from frozen. I was dropping the others off, so I ordered just the saganaki, a coke, and the fish soup to take back to our villa for my wife.
On the positive side, my son’s fish was flawless. He had the sea brim, which was cooked to perfection. He enjoyed it right down to the last morsel on the bone. Lili’s husband, Tommy, was not eating anything since he wanted to swim first, so he just had a draft beer. He’s lucky he didn’t order my saganaki. He’d have bounced off the bottom of the bay.
The problem would not have been a problem even with bouncy saganaki cheese if the wait staff had decided to wake up friendly that late morning. Here’s the thing, on Crete, it’s pretty tough to find a crappy restaurant or taverna. We’ve been here a while, so it’s clear. What is unacceptable is when there is a lack of the island’s biggest draw, legendary hospitality, Filoxenia (Philoxenia).
The word Filoxenia, or from the Ancient Greek (φῐλοξενῐ́ᾱ), is a compound word with Filo (which means love) and xenia (which means strangers). This is a vital thing for the Cretans. It comes from the story of the unknown deity, and in Crete, the stranger is still the unknown god. So, when this is not the case, when the waitpersons act as if they could care less about you when a smartphone conversation or last night’s festivities outweighs the guest, it’s a sacrilege.
So, the reason you are reading about bouncy ball cheese saganaki and out-to-lunch staff is that when the owner of this taverna reads this, he should take note every time a client chooses to spend time at their establishment. Every client. You never know when a Top Google Guide or Tripadvisor Restaurant Expert might jump in for refreshment after enjoying one of the most famous beaches in the world.
I’ll try Alexis Zorbas the next time I am in Matala, just to see if constructive criticism has any effect. And in this, we will know the ultimate rating of this once-popular fish taverna.