By Nena Dimitriou & Paulina Björk Kapsalis
Myriad new restaurants and eateries have helped Athens’ city center to blossom in spite of the economic crisis. Classic tavernas – quintessential symbols of the Athenian food culture with their great atmosphere, hearty stews and walls lined with wine barrels – remain the dominant force.
But today they are joined by restaurants of modern Greek cuisine, where talented cooks are reinventing the genre; by street food joints, with souvlaki being the unrivaled star; and by a large variety of other choices that prove that Athenians love to eat and to explore new cuisines. An ethnic food district has formed around Syntagma Square, to cater to adventurous Greeks and the millions of tourists who flock to the city all year round.
Neighborhoods around the outskirts of the city center, like Koukaki and Pangrati, are becoming increasingly popular as new restaurants and trendy cafés serving great brunch set up shop. Athens also has a few Michelin-starred restaurants, which are quite affordable considering the quality of the food they serve, and the latest trend is wine bars specializing in Greek selections.
What, apart from all this, makes Athens special as a food destination? Well, for a start, you can find a table after hours at even the fanciest restaurant, have value-for-money fresh fish right by the sea, and enjoy traditional recipes at tavernas that have been around for more than half a century.
Even if you’re part of the 72-hour crowd choosing Athens for a short city break, it’s all so accessible that you’ll be able to get a pretty good idea of what’s on offer.
Our suggestion: start with the traditional tavernas and the upscale restaurants serving contemporary versions of classic Greek dishes. Below are some of our favorites.
The result of a collaboration between five talented chefs, Cookoovaya serves reinvented Greek cuisine alongside classic dishes such as Greek salad, fresh fish with seasonal vegetables, and savory pies baked in the restaurant’s wood-fired oven.
Cookoovaya: 2A Hatziyianni Mexi, Tel. (+30) 210.723.5005
This basement taverna might just be the oldest one in Athens. The atmosphere here is unbeatable; the place has barely changed since it opened, making it a favorite spot for romantics and history buffs alike. The food is still cooked the same way, and the wine is still poured straight from the large barrels. Try the chickpea soup, the boiled greens and the whitebait.
FABRICA TOU EFROSINOU
After eating here, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that the owner once studied theology. Efrosynos (the restaurant’s name means “The Workshop of Efrosynos”) is the patron saint of cooks, and many recipes in this retro-chic modern taverna with its unique décor are inspired by the cuisine of the monastic community of Mt Athos. The easy atmosphere of this place and the food it serves have earned this eatery many believers.
Diporto: 9 Sokratous and Theatrou, Omonia, Tel. (+30) 210.321.1463
Fabrica tou Efrosinou: 34 Anastasiou Zinni, Koukaki, Tel. (+30) 210.924.6354
Located on the 6th floor of the Onassis Cultural Center, Michelin-starred Hytra is perfect for those who love fine dining. Tasos Mantis’ dishes are highly contemporary, both in execution and presentation. The food is inspired by Greek recipes, but the emphasis on appearance means each dish is a work of art, too. Organized by their taste profile, the wine list features over 100 domestic and international wines.
This family-run taverna, located in the middle of nowhere in Kantza, is famous for serving excellent cuts of meat, perfectly grilled over charcoal. It’s a carnivore’s paradise. Try the steak, burgers, and ribs (the whole rack of ribs is a must order). The menu includes various traditional Greek meze dishes such as tzatziki and fried zucchini, but be sure not to over-order on the starters because you’ll want to leave plenty of room for the main attraction.
Hytra: 107 Syngrou Avenue, Tel. (+30) 210.331.6767
Kritikos: 49 Aiolou, Kantza-Pallini, Tel. (+30) 210.665.9061
This neighborhood taverna in Petralona offers little in terms of décor but plenty in authenticity and flavor. Serving traditional rustic foods such as soups and casseroles that remind locals of the food their grandmothers used to make, it’s a popular choice among families on the weekends.
This seaside restaurant is a perfect place to enjoy the classic seafood you’ve come to associate with Greece. The sea urchin, the red mullet or the catch of the day, prepared on the grill, are all recommended. Pair your food with a nice Greek white from the extensive wine list.
Oikonomou: 41 Troon & Kydantidon, Petralona, Tel. (+30) 210.346.7555
Papaioannou: 42 Akti Koumoundourou, Piraeus, Tel. (+30) 210.422.5059
This taverna, which has a great vibe and sources excellent ingredients, offers delicious no-frills food in a lively setting. With tables on the main square of Metaxourgio, it’s the perfect easy-dining setting for those warm evenings in the city.
Brothers Spyros and Vangelis Liakos collaborate with fishermen from Halkida and Kalymnos, among other places, to serve innovative seafood and fish-based meze such as red mullet tartare and fava (yellow split-pea dip) with smoked eel. The high point of the menu is the skewer with shrimp and squid, served with squid ink and olive oil.
Seychelles: 49 Kerameikou, Metaxourgio, Tel. (+30) 211.183.4789
Travolta: 33 Aghiou Pavlou, Peristeri, Tel. (+30) 210.571.9222
TRIANTAFYLLO TIS NOSTIMIAS
Situated in an arcade full of old goldsmith workshops, this simple eatery has just a handful of tables. Locals come here for ouzo and meze. Try some small grilled fish, herb stuffed sardines, fava (yellow split pea) with onion, and fried saganaki cheese.
Featuring neoclassical décor and an amazing view of the city center and the Acropolis, Tudor Hall serves modern Greek cuisine. Inspired by the food of his home island of Corfu, chef de cuisine Alexandros Koskinas puts emphasis on quality seasonal ingredients to create dishes such as grilled calamari and handmade pasta. The dessert menu by French pastry chefs Arnaud Larher and Evgenios Vardakastanis is just as impressive.
Lefteris Lazarou is Greece’s most famous seafood chef. At his Michelin-starred Varoulko in Mikrolimano, he cooks innovative fish and seafood recipes together with chef Giannis Parikos. Enjoy dishes such as dolmadakia (stuffed vine leaf rolls) filled with cuttlefish risotto, and other gastronomic delights. Dessert is an absolute must.
Triadafyllou tis Nostimias: 22 Lekka, Syntagma, Tel. (+30) 210.322.7298
Tudor Hall: 3 Vasileos Georgiou I, Syntagma Square, Tel. (+30) 210.333.0265
Varoulko: 52 Akti Koumoundourou, Tel. (+30) 210.522.8400