In the outside seating area of Use Bar (Karitsi Square 5; 30-210-323-5993), two tables of artist types were discussing a recent show by the local dark-wave band Phoenix Catscratch. Later, throngs of young men and women sporting skinny jeans and asymmetrical haircuts would fill the square and seep down winding Kolokotroni Street into a slew of new bars, galleries and other spots catering to the city’s growing indie and post-alternative scene.
It’s hard to believe that only six or seven years ago, this shop-filled area — known by the somewhat unwieldy title of the “historic commercial triangle” — was a virtual wasteland for night life. Back then, after the bustling daytime crowds dispersed, the triangle went dark.
“In the center of Athens there was nothing, just these really cheap shops,” said Christoforos Tiropolis, who rode the crest of the downtown indie bar deluge when he and a partner opened the small cocktail bar Pop (Kleitou 10B; 30-210-322-06-50) in June of 2001. “We came here to have space around us. We just wanted a place where our friends could come and have drinks and hear great music.”
These days, if you can find a spot at the perpetually gridlocked bar, you’ll find that Pop still houses a range of great local D.J.’s playing everything from no-wave to British invasion to indie pop and offers some of the best cocktails in the city. The signature drink, known as the Pop, is a fizzy, decadent blend of two types of vodka, triple sec, fresh strawberries, fresh lime, sugar and Champagne.
As Pop gained a reputation as a hip late-night locale, new bars in the same mold — intimate, unpretentious, urbane — began sprouting up in the neighborhood. By 2006, the number of bars downtown had grown to around 15. By the middle of October there were at least 27 by the count of several bar owners.
Much of the growth was centered on Avramiotou, a quiet, run-down sliver of a street off Kolokotroni, which metamorphosed into a hot spot when four small indie bars — Kinky, Urban, Black Cat and Plastelini — opened next to one another between 2004 and 2007. Then lastmonth, the owners of the bars merged into a four-part music location called. Avramiotou 6-8; 30-210-321-05-10; r/).
The building’s sophisticated, minimalist redesign, undertaken by the Greek architectural firm Point Supreme, uses a gray-scale gradient color scheme that darkens as the site progresses from the airy, white gallery space to the slate-colored cafe-library to the large, charcoal-hued gig space and finally to the sleek, black cocktail bar.
With its newly streamlined acoustics, Six D.O.G.S. is probably the best spot in the neighborhood for hearing local D.J.’s and bands. And for an indie scene more concerned with listening to the music than moving to it, Six D.O.G.S. is one of the few downtown places where people take to the dance floor en masse.
The artistic director, Konstantinos Dagritzikos, who plays drums in the ’60s-influenced band Love Beverly, says he tries to maintain a balance between booking local independent bands and acts from abroad, like the London-based electro-punk outfit Publicist, which played at the opening, and the English D.J. collective Disco Bloodbath (traces of this group are still visible in the form of splattered fake blood handprints on Six D.O.G.S.’s graffitied facade).
Though the historic commercial triangle was for centuries the center of Athenian cultural life, overcrowding, traffic and pollution eventually led to an exodus from the center. While many businesses and retail shops remained, much of Athens’s cultural activity moved elsewhere, and the downtown area became more of an administrative and commercial hub.
As a result, night life gravitated to more residential outlying neighborhoods like Gazi — once the site of the city’s gasworks — and the posh Psirri, where large, flashy nightclubs came and went faster than British island-hoppers. In the rough-edged neighborhood of Exarchia, punks, goths and beefed-up rockers defined the late-night scene. But more intimate, indie-oriented options were few and far between.
“I was alone, completely,” said Nikos Louvros, who opened Booze Cooperativa (Kolokotroni 57; 30-210-324-09-44; a combination bar, cafe and gallery, in a former textile mill in 1989. The three-story neo-Classical-style complex is now at the center of downtown’s indie renaissance, offering a rotating selection of exhibitions, screenings, theatrical performances and live music gigs. Though this kind of multiplatform cultural program is now prevalent in the Athens indie scene, it was something of an anomaly when Booze first opened its doors.
Earlier this year, when the municipal government banned smoking in public spaces including many bars, Mr. Louvros, a former political cartoonist, made a splash in Athenian politics by founding his own political party called Smoking Groups for Art and Artistic Creation, which in Greek forms the acronym “chicken.” He then registered Booze as his party headquarters, which under the Greek constitution makes it exempt from the ban.
One factor in Athens’s downtown indie transformation was a recent explosion of free press in the city. Five years ago, there was only The Athens Voice, an alternative weekly that then had a meager listings section and only a few pages devoted to the arts.
But along came Velvet a free monthly first published in 2004 by the Athens-born brothers Lakis and Aris Ionas, who run a veritable do-it-yourself culture factory out of their fourth-floor downtown studio.
In addition to running the magazine, devoted entirely to the local indie scene, the Ionases have an art collective, a fashion line (their mother sews all their futuristic neon-colored metallic wool creations), and an art-punk band called the Callas. The group has self-released two albums and performed throughout Europe — often in homemade spandex Superman costumes — with the Callasettes, their five “laboratory-made groupies.” Following Velvet, many other locally focused free publications, like Lifo, FAQ, Don’t Panic Athens and Ozon, which has an English-language Web site , have sprung up.
“In the past, there were bands, but there wasn’t a common ground to support all these bands,” Aris Ionas said. “There wasn’t a magazine or a record label that was paying attention to the indie scene.”
Though musically diverse, the bands currently emerging out of the Athens scene like the Callas, Phoenix Catscratch, the singer-songwriter Monika and My Wet Calvin, an experimental indie pop act that often performs in animal costumes, all share a commitment to wild, unconventional live shows and a high-concept, do-it-yourself aesthetic.
“It’s more like a scene now,” said Fotis Vallatos, music editor of the Athens-based FREE magazine. “There’s more of a connection between music and art and bars.”
Mr. Vallatos is also one-half of a D.J. team called Armani Had a Softer Touch, which plays regularly throughout the neighborhood in places like Six D.O.G.S., Use Bar and the seven-month-old Ambariza (Lekka 14; 30-210-325-76-44), a chic, L-shaped bar off Karitsi Square that by day caters to the Wi-Fi-and-frappe crowd but later transforms into a lively hangout for the indie set.
“We hope that the neighborhood can work as a place where new bands and non-mainstream D.J.’s can play,” Lakis Ionas said. “I think it’s working. It’s still a small community, but it’s quite strong.”