Welcome back to The Last Bite, our new column documenting the survival of traditional food establishments in a ramen-slurping, matcha latte-sipping, novelty cafe-obsessed world. As cities develop and dining habits change, can the dive bars and defiantly untrendy restaurants keep up? Here, we talk to longstanding bartenders, chefs, market stall holders, and restaurant owners to find out what the future may hold. For this installment, we find a little piece of Cyprus in rainy Manchester.
"When we first opened, you could only get olive oil at the chemist," chef Loulla Astin tells me as we sit down together at Kosmos, Manchester's oldest Greek restaurant. "We couldn't get halloumi or cracked wheat and people didn't know what aubergines or even peppers were."
Thirty-five years down the line, a lot has changed—not least the average Brit's ability to tell the difference between a courgette and a cucumber. The area of Fallowfield where Kosmos is situated is now the city's studentville and Astin's traditional looking taverna sits somewhat awkwardly between two neon-lit takeaways. Days like Mondays and Tuesdays can be especially tough, but the chef is determined to keep the business going, despite now being in her late 60s.
"We moved over from Cyprus when I was 14 and my father opened the first kebab shop in Manchester," Astin tells me over a vegetarian mezethes. "There weren't many Cypriots or Greeks here at the time so my parents worried the shop might fail. To stay on the safe side, they had some English food on the menu as well but within a month, my father took all the British stuff out."
The shop's runaway popularity became a problem, however.
"There weren't any toilets so customers would go to the Odeon across the road," remembers Astin. "In the end, we came to a sort of understanding that if they let us use their facilities, we'd give the cinema staff unlimited kebabs."
It was in her father's kebab shop that Astin met her husband Stewart, who suggested they open their own restaurant after they got married.
"I wasn't keen at first because I'd studied fashion at university and I couldn't cook, but I decided to give it a go," says Astin. "Within the first year we were in the [Consumers' Association's] Good Food Guide and we were the first Greek restaurant, so I was really proud. Now there's no Greek restaurants in there. They've taken us all out, one by one," she adds with a laugh.
It's a shame, because the food at Kosmos is excellent. From the dolmathes Astin makes with vine leaves from her own garden and stuffs with rice and pine kernels to the light and fluffy spanakotiropita bites and falafels, everything tastes fresh, homemade, and healthy.
It brings me back to wondering why Kosmos hasn't moved out of Fallowfield to a place where the lovingly prepared food might be better appreciated. Although the restaurant has an enticing student menu, I only spot one table of young people.
I soon realise the restaurant hasn't changed in years because Astin isn't so focused on money-making or keeping up with trends. After a successful career as a TV chef in the 90s with shows on ITV and Sky, what she's really passionate about is passing on her knowledge, both of Greek food but also the country's culture.
"People always ask me for recipes for special occasions, so I wrote this Little Book of Greek Orthodox Memorial Traditions," Astin says, showing me a pamphlet-sized guide with pictures I'm surprised to hear were taken on her phone. "I wanted to keep costs low because I give the profits to local charities. Friends said I should donate the money to the Greek Church, but they're rich enough," she says, once more lighting up the room with her heartwarming cackle.
Since Astin's husband passed away, front-of-house at Kosmos has been taken over by their three sons. But she is still executive chef and carefully talks me through how she goes about preparing dishes like her garithes meh feta—prawns baked in a white wine and tomato sauce and topped with the Greek cheese.
"I come up with all the specials for the menu," Astin explains, "and the Cypriot customers ask after me, so I'm here on weekends. But I can't work every day, not at my age."
After such a long time, I can understand why Astin is keen to wind down and focus on her writing, with a book of Kosmos recipes in the pipeline. But I also get the feeling that she's the charismatic glue that holds the restaurant together. As she brings out a selection of Greek Christmas cookies, her face lights up.
"The kourabiethes are supposed to remind you of snow," she says, pointing to the icing sugar-covered shortbread biscuits. They're sweet and crumbly, with a subtle taste of honey and almonds.
"I feel like what we offer is a personal touch that you don't get unless you're a family restaurant," Astin tells me before I leave. I couldn't agree more.
And while I'm sure her sons will carry on her culinary legacy, Kosmos is really Fallowfield's best kept secret because of this gregarious grandma.
All photos by Akash Khadka.