We have all been longing for lots of things during lockdown, but gatherings with close friends and family at one of our favorite tavernas probably tops the list.
There is a wide variety of restaurants in Athens but no matter how many options there are for nights out this summer, your favorites will be hard to resist, returning to a familiar place where you know the proprietors and their culinary treats. Indeed, you know these places so well you do not even have to open the menu; you can order with your eyes closed.
There is something sacred about having a handful of favorite tavernas, especially after months of lockdown – the certainty that they’re there, the closeness, the intimacy, the feeling of rediscovering something of your own. Most of all, it’s the connection with the food – a sumptuous vegetable pie that reminds you of your grandmother’s, a fish meze that smells of the sea, a mouth-watering platter of spare ribs, a stew cooked in the pot, each dish carrying special memories of past meals, culinary déjà vu.
Everyone has their own reference points but I always go back to “Giouvetsakia” in Ano Glyfada. Head Chef Haris Tzitzis goes to two or three open markets every day and buys cheese and meat from suppliers he has collaborated with over the last 25 years.
His search for the best ingredients pays off; the crispy “almira” greens from Vravrona, the ingredients in the coarsely chopped salad, the slightly spicy grilled octopus with peppers and capers, the sausages from Karditsa, and the “anevato” (soft white cheese made with goat’s milk) from Verdikousa, are all wonderful.
And then there are the stuffed vine leaves with minced meat and wonderfully dense, creamy egg lemon sauce made by Eva Pasanikolaki, and the veal “giouvetsi” (veal cooked with orzo pasta and tomato sauce in a clay pot).
All this in a courtyard with geraniums, lemon trees, angelicas and sweet-smelling flowers, with the gardenia’s fragrance filling the evening air. You sit under the reed canopy wrapped in greenery and you shut everything else out.
Ithomis 20 & Moreos 45, Ano Glyfada, tel: (+30) 210.964.8081
Dina Louki’s “Thalassinos,” a taverna that has been around for 30 years or more in the quiet southern neighborhood of Tzitzifies behind the old racetrack, close to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, is another one of my regular haunts.
In the evening it stands out from the surrounding houses with its lights, but during the day, the courtyard with its mulberry trees and the potted plants, where a dozen blue tables surrounded by green chairs are spread out, is even more beautiful.
You can find the signature dishes of previous chefs who passed through the kitchen still on the menu– the shrimp salad with carrot, for example, first made by Barba-Yiannis, a cook from Poli they had many years ago – but also new ones.
Heracleous & Lysikratous 32, Tzizifies, tel: (+30) 210.940.4518
Vassilis Koloveas, one of the old chefs who has returned to cook at Thalassinos again, always pulls out that classic pie with handmade phyllo (very thin dough), feta cheese, spinach – the archetypal Greek comfort food.
He also prepares stuffed sardines, fried mussels with “skordalia” (garlic dip), fava (split pea puree) with smoked eel, dolmadakia yalantzi (stuffed vine leaves with rice and herbs) topped with marinated salmon, cuttlefish with ink, wild greens and other delicacies. There’s also always a selection of fresh fish, mainly from the northern Aegean islands of Mytilene and Limnos.
The center of Athens is full of eateries, but taverna Oikonomou is the embodiment of living history – an essential part of the city’s dining scene.
Serving food since 1930, this old taverna in the downtown neighborhood of Petralona has fed writers, painters, politicians and students. The eight tables that occupy the sidewalk, next to the olive trees, are constantly emptying and filling with people, such is its popularity.
As for food, the “lathera”(oil-based stews) – okra, green beans and aubergines, as well as the rooster in tomato sauce with macaroni, the lamb cooked with lemon and the cabbage rolls, are always in high demand. Kostas Diamantis chooses the ingredients with the utmost care, keeping everything the same in this taverna that stays untouched by time. It always boasts the same flavors, the same tempo, the same humanity. And you always leave happy and full.
Troon 41 & Kydantidon, Ano Petralona, tel: (+30) 210.346.7555
“Vrasto” in Polydroso, Halandri, where many tables are spread out beneath the trees in the spacious courtyard, is also on my list. This taverna has been here for half a century, and the new generation of the Silyra family, which runs the place, has maintained its character and cooks delicious food, with heart.
Their cheese pies, made with anthotyro, feta cheese and Karystos touloumotyri, and the fragrant cheese and greens pie, are both a joy, as are their meat dishes, from fried liver with herb sauce, ribs and kontosouvli (spit-roasted meat), to steaks and the oversized Tomahawk steaks.
Of course, you can also choose one of the dishes of the day, such as veal in lemon sauce, or roasted pork shank, marinated with honey and orange.
Rodon 3, Polydroso Halandriou, tel: (+30) 210.681.3776
And while we’re on the subject of meat, “Kritikos,” the famous meat taverna in Kantza with many sworn followers, immediately comes to mind. Indeed, such is its popularity, that patrons come from far and wide.
In their cobbled courtyard with scented gardenias and pines, you feel as though you’ve traveled far out in the countryside. Here, Nikos Dogiakis masters the grill with skill that can only come from experience, turning out platters loaded with juicy lamb chops, liver wrapped in caul fat, delicious kidneys on the coals, and perfectly grilled T-bone and Rib Eye steaks.
Appetizers include cheese pies, fried zucchini, and wild greens like “almyra” and “vlita” – the perfect accompaniment to the rich variety of meat dishes.
Aiolou 49, Kanja, tel: (+30) 210.665.9061
Another taverna in Mesogeia worth typing into your GPS is “Houneri.” Even though it’s located in the area of Paiania in central Attica, it still manages to capture all the flavors and tastes of the sea.
In the courtyard of a 139-year-old stone house, patrons are treated to a smorgasbord of mezedes accompanied by tsipouro (Ilias Zikos, owner and cook, from Ioannina, makes his own tsipouro) and ouzo, including mouth-watering orzotto with shrimp, octopus with fava and caramelized onions, mussels with wild rice pilaf, crispy shrimp from Symi, and stuffed squid.
With a plate of cockles, surf clams and whatever else the divers have taken out of the sea, you’ll soon start believing again in the God of small things.
This article was previously published in Greek by “K” Magazine.
Karaoli & Demetriou, Paiania, tel: (+30) 210.664.6038