With shops closing, pensions and salaries shrinking, and more and more Greeks feeling the pinch, it never ceases to amaze that good quality, fresh and tasty authentic food in the capital and elsewhere, is still preferred, appreciated and faithful customers still abound.
As does every major city, Athens offers a wide selection of restaurants, taverns and fast food options, as well as the emergence of ‘modern Greek fusion’ cuisine. There are also several other ethnic eateries to be found here and there offering a variety of Asian, Indian and Middle-Eastern fare.
What is so special about Greek cuisine? i Greek cuisine is famous for its healthy Mediterranean diet, as it offers a wide variety of flavors incorporating what is produced/ grown/ caught in the local region, enhanced by hand-picked spices and other things ‘found in nature’ (for instance teas and age-old, plant-based remedies.
Even what is considered ‘fast-food’, like souvlaki or gyro, or cheese pies for instance, are not made of unrecognizable over-processed food, so this is rather unique in itself in comparison to most westernized countries. Despite differences in what is available in different parts of Greece, and availability of certain vegetables and fruits as the seasons change, the main staple ingredient used throughout the country no matter what is cooked, is Greece’s world-famous extra virgin olive oil.
Most visitors are only familiar with the touristic side of the Greek cuisine and visit Greece knowing only the most popular dishes that are also served in their country of origin or on eatery signs in the central touristy ancient Plaka area, like moussaka, souvlaki, gyros, calamari, Greek salad and roasted lamb.
Although these are very tasty options, even more so when you go to smaller ‘neighborhood’ taverns where the food is less rushed and made with a little more pride and care, Greece’s cuisine has has so much more to offer! Depending on where you decide to enjoy your meal, the flavours are mainly influenced by the islands of Crete, Santorini, Corfu and the regions outside of Athens the Peloponnese and the northern part of Greece, combined with oriental flavors from the former coast of Turkey (also called Politiki kouzina) - the added charm of these ‘local’ eateries is that they may even include some older loved family recipes of the village where the owner or their family is from, giving each place an extra special little touch on the menu and often influences the atmosphere or ‘vibe’ of each place.
Unknown names to foreign visitors come up like apaki, sofrito, kalitsounia ,bourgeto, antikristo, manestra, fricasse, anthous, pitakia kesarias, skopelitiki, gouna pariani, lemonato, tas kempap, tampoule and hundreds more. All these regional, rustic, dried, pickled and fresh ingredient combinations, flavors and recipes combined together complete the unique gastronomical experience of Greek cuisine. So how to choose where to eat? Although there are a couple of great places within the city centre where locals like to go which are lesser-found or influenced by the tourist market, the smaller restaurants and local neighborhood taverns just outside the buzz of the city centre are much better quality, cheaper in general (and it is usually much more fun with the locals!).
You came all the way to Greece for an experience, so why not get away from the mass crowds of Plaka where the food quality can be a bit of a gamble, and the restaurants around Piraeus harbour and a couple of upmarket suburbs which tend to be terribly expensive.
(The price difference between a restaurant or a tavern in the outskirts of Athens and these areas is at least thirty percent).
Besides, the experience of eating among the locals, and having the Greek dining experience that often includes live Greek music which often has people singing along to beloved traditional music depending on the night, is totally worth getting out of the centre for! So depending on what you feel like, choose accordingly.
Note that it is always best to avoid places that have a ‘supermarket’ menu (that offer an extensive range of food, from pizza to gyros and from moussaka to club sandwich) the food there will be mediocre at his best. So go for a place with character, a local identity, a good menu with fresh ingredients (these places don’t usually exceed 20 different dishes..they just do what the ones they want to offer really well, and often have tasty daily specials that change from frequently depending on what the chef/ owner found at the markets that day or week.
Also pay attention to the prices when visiting a fish restaurant, eating fish is very popular but also very expensive always ask for the price prior of ordering fresh fish and add to this the fact that you have to pay separately for the side dish (potatoes and vegetables). Contrary to popular belief around seafood (and meat in fact) being a heavily-eaten staple in the greek diet, fresh fish is actually considered a luxury in Greece..typically though you can find pickled or fried octopus/ calamari options as an entree (‘meze’) on many menus.
If you still intend to eat in a touristic area look for the places where the locals are eating (Greeks eat late at night) be aware for hawkers that promise you heaven on earth and try to bribe you with a free drink mostly wine. Look at the demographic of the customers too, the time and how full it is.. often you can tell a lot simply by noting diners’ expressions/ conversations - and of course the food on the tables!
Also be aware that Tripadvisor reviews are not always telling the truth, and as it become more and more the norm for people who travel extensively, and review, people will usually rate places and activities according to their own standards and life experiences in their own countries or travel-comfort preferences which can be misleading, whether it be fair or unfair.
So go with your instincts and ask locals or local-based experts whom have every-day experiences in the area you want to explore. All in all, food in Greece is taken very seriously by Greeks, as it’s a social matter when you get together with friends and loved ones and enjoy an un-pressured meal over hours with your ‘parea’ or ‘chosen social companionship’.
You can eat your way around in Greece and never become bored, due to the variety of delicious savory tastes, extraordinarily wonderful Greek sweets, and of course enjoy locally made wines and spirits that the ancient Greeks did. Hence why Greek cuisine is considered to be one of the best in the world.
As Greek mothers and grandmothers would always insist on any relative or guest: You need to eat!