Some big cities are famous for their food districts. All travelers know that when in New York you can visit Chinatown or head to Little Italy depending on what type of cuisine your taste buds desire. Not to mention that every foodie in the world dreams of hitting the Mission in San Francisco. It’s no coincidence that such cities also happen to be home to some of the world’s largest foreign-born populations. Food districts are often born out of residents’ love for the food of their home countries. So if you’re a homesick Greek in New York, all you need to do to get a taste of home is to head down to a gyros shop in Queens.
There are other types of food districts as well, ones that have less to do with the residents of a certain area, and more to do with trends that – seemingly randomly – happen to take hold in specific neighborhoods. In New York, a trend like that might be s’mores made with charcoal bagels (don’t Google it – we made them up). In Athens it is more likely to be a broader concept, like a certain type of foreign cuisine or a way of eating.
But are there really food districts in Athens? Yes. The suburbs offer a few famous ones, like meat-centered Vari, a suburb 25k south of the city center, where it’s natural – nay, expected – for serious carnivores to eat with their hands. Meanwhile many coastal areas are naturally characterized by their rows of fish restaurants. Then there are a couple of less expected newcomers, like Chalandri; which suddenly seems to be a mecca for burgers and pancakes.
And even in the very center of Athens, you’ll find some great food districts, if you know where to look. One can be forgiven for not noticing them at first; Ermou Street is like a vacuum, naturally sucking you in from Syntagma Square and ushering you down through the most mainstream area of Athens until you reach Monastiraki, where you’ll likely spend your time strolling around the flea market and souvenir shops.
But, if you just turn off Ermou and keep sniffing, you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise. They’re rarely talked about, probably because they aren’t very visible. They seem to have just happened unintentionally, and no glaring signs will point you in their direction. So to help you find your way, we took a close look at the city center, and created a food district map of Athens.
Not all restaurants fit the map, of course. Some of our central Athens favorites, like Aiolou 68, don’t fit into any given district. Also there is some overlap, and many restaurants will naturally fall into several categories, like Serbitospito in Psyrri which serves Middle Eastern/mainstream desserts. In what we’re calling Athens’ Little Asia, there are excellent mainstream street food options, as there are in the ‘Central American’ neighborhood.
Squeezed between those districts, on the corner of Mitropoleos Street and Penteli Street, is one of our favorite souvlaki joints; Kostas. In other words, it’s not an all-encompassing (or ever-lasting) map, but we think it’s a great starting point for exploring the city’s alternative food scene. We’ve also picked our favorite restaurants in each district to help you get exploring.
The Athens Food Map
Like a belt across the center that follows Ermou Street and includes some of its side streets from Syntagma to Monastiraki, is the mainstream food district. Here you’ll find American fast food chains, and the Greek version; Goody’s Burger House.
There are also tons of bakeries, cafés, sandwich shops, and souvlaki restaurants. Its not the most exotic of fare (as the name suggests) but often the most convenient if one is pressed for time or too tired from shopping to wander much further.
Favorites: Here we usually hit Meliartos, for salads and sandwiches, or Thanasis for souvlaki.
Meliartos: 65 Ermou & Aiolou, 210.323.7379 Thanasis: 69 Mitropoleos, 210.324.4705
From Syntagma Square, head down Mitropoleos Street and turn onto Nikis Street. You may not notice it at first, but you are now in what we are calling Little Asia. Don’t expect to see Chinese lanterns strung above the street or myriad signs you can’t read. This isn’t a magnet for selfie stick-waving tourists.
Sushi is probably the biggest restaurant trend in Athens right now, and you can find it on almost every corner in the center. However, Little Asia features not just our favorite sushi restaurant, but a wide selection of Asian food in general. Some is fusion, some is street food, some is of the cheap chain variety, and some of it is really great.
It’s a small district, covering only parts of the small streets of Nikis, Apollonos, Skoufou, and Xenofontos, but you’ll find the best Japanese, Chinese, and Korean food in town right here. A must-visit whether you’re craving sushi, noodles, dim sum, or fried bananas.
Favorites: Sushimou for sashimi and nigiri made from Greek bonito, sardines, mackerel, and squid. Pink Flamingo for Chinese dim sum and the bao bun of the day. Dosirak for Korean beef bulgogi. Babaji for butter chicken, korma, and excellent naan. And last but not least, the much-praised Nolan for innovative, delicious Greek/Asian fusion dishes.
Sushimou: 6 Skoufou, 211.407.8457
Pink Flamingo: 2-4 Skoufou, 210.331.6177
Dosirak: 33 Voulis, 210.323.3330
Babaji: 11 Nikis, 210.325.4841
Nolan: 31 Voulis, 210.324.3545
The Central American Neighborhood
The youngest of the districts on our map, this one is less clear-cut, more straggling both in terms of food and geography. It melts together with Little Asia, and you’ll find Latin American/Spanish options elsewhere as well on Xenofontos Street and on Nikis Street. Still, this newborn deserves a mention. Petraki Street is easy to miss if you don’t know where to turn. It’s the length of just two blocks, sandwiched between Ermou Street and Mitropoleos Street. Even those of us who’ve been here sometimes forget it exists.
However, it seems to be the center of the emerging Central American district, with several new and newish eateries inviting Athenians to experience cuisines rarely represented in Greece. The district is characterized by a fun and uplifting atmosphere. Think Hawaiian raw fish bowls from a hole in the wall, accompanied by the music from a mariachi band at the next restaurant.
Favorites: Poke Hawaiian Sushi, who serve customizable poke bowls of rice, raw fish, fruits, and veggies, Taqueria Maya, for tacos (we love ours with sweet potato and chorizo, and take our nachos with the extra hot Fire Dancer sauce), and Los Loros for arepas.
Poke hawaiian Sushi: 7 Petraki, 210.322.6653 Taqueria Maya: 10 Petraki, 211.216.7081 Los Loros: 14 Xenofontos, 210.324.3232
The Street Food “Rectangle”
Say you’re back at Syntagma Square, and in need of a quick bite. This time, take Karagiorgi Servias Street (which will change name to Perikleous), to the right of Ermou Street, towards the Street Food Rectangle. If you’re thinking that the whole city of Athens is packed with street food joints, you’re right. But while there are many good ones all around the city, there are also a lot of fairly average options.
The street food “rectangle” is your safest bet for interesting, tasty, and varied food on the go. You’ll have trouble choosing between classic souvlaki, burgers, tacos, falafel, noodles and even a Greek version of fish & chips.
Favorites: For sit-down versions of international street food we like Estrella for classic American street food and brunch in original ways (with local products), and Mama Roux, which serves everything from Ramen, to burgers, to quesadillas. Etniko is good for burritos and chimichangas, and Food Str serves quality burgers and hot dogs. For dessert served street food style in a paper bowls, we love Lukumades, named for what they serve; the Greek version of doughnuts with honey and cinnamon, chocolate sauce, and/or various fillings.
Estrella: 24A Romvis, 210.321.8000
Mama Roux: 48 Aiolou, 213.004.8382
Etnico: 22 Kolokotroni, 211.411.3880
Food Str: 14 Kalamiotou, 210.321.1003
Lukumades: 21 Aiolou, 210.321.0880
The Middle Eastern Blocks
Featuring mostly falafel and kebab shops, but also excellent lahamajoun, pide, and menemen, this is the place to go if you love spicy food. History has blurred the lines between Greek and Middle Eastern cuisine, and Greeks love these restaurants. While some of them may not look like much from the outside, the quality of the flavors will ensure a second visit. And a third and a fourteenth.
If you feel inspired after enjoying a meal here, continue up Athinas Street and turn left onto Evripidou Street, where you’ll find shops selling all the spices and cured meats you need to make your own pide at home. Most of the restaurants in the Middle Eastern Blocks are of the fast food variety, and since versions of these dishes have been adapted in Greek cuisine, it feels like a natural transition as you move from the Street Food Rectangle, through the Middle Eastern Blocks, into the area of Psyrri, where most of the traditional Greek restaurants are.
Favorites: Falafellas for the best falafel in the city, and Feyrouz for lahmajoun and drinkable veggie soups.
Falafellas: 51 Aiolou, 210.323.9809
Feyrouz: 2 Agathonos, 213.031.8060
Central Athens can seem surprisingly void of good taverna-style Greek food. While it might be the only type of restaurant available in smaller towns and villages around the country, the capital has had to make room for new food trends. The first traditional restaurants you’ll come across will, in fact, likely not be very authentic. Either they serve contemporary versions of local dishes, infused with foreign ingredients, or they are catering to the first impulses of tourists (on the hunt for chicken skewers, tzatziki, and moussaka; no matter the season and at any price).
A rule of thumb when looking for authentic Greek food is to avoid the flashiest places; those who enjoy excellent locations, polished storefronts, and very extensive menus will usually not have the best food. Look for less fancy looking eateries away from the main streets. If they have customers for no immediately apparent reason, the reason is the food.
You’ll find many of these unpretentious restaurants in Psyrri. Students flock here for cheap nights out at the mezedopoleia (the Greek version of tapas bars), and tourists who find their way here will always come back. 50-year-old tavernas are mixed with newly-opened cafes.
Favorites: Nikitas for straight-forward home-style meals. Avli for classic meatballs, potato salad, and fried cheese. I Thessaloniki stou Psyrri for bougatsa pastries with cheese, custard, or hazelnut chocolate. TsiknaBoom for Cypriot pitas stuffed with rotisserie pork, veggies, and yogurt sauce. Koulouri of Psyrri for fresh bread rings with sesame seeds after or during a night out; the first batches come out sometime after midnight.
Nikitas: 19 Ag. Anargiron, 210.325.2591
Avli: 12 Ag. Dimitriou, 210.321.7642
I Thessaloniki tou Psyrri: 1 Iroon Square, 210.322.2088
TsiknaBoom: 2-4 Pallados, 210.321.0616
Koulouri of Psyrri: 23 Karaiskaki, 210.321.5962