It is officially summer in Greece and that means tourist season. Athens, the islands and Greece in general are filled with visitors, and if you are one of them, here are six tips to help you get the best food experience.
1. Order the right things at touristy places.
Yes we all like to visit and eat at the known touristy places in any country. But as cliché as it sounds sometimes they are just that — “touristy” — and you shouldn’t settle for touristy food. But here is what you should do if you are in touristy area — in Athens it is Plaka and in other places it is not hard to identify them: there are usually a bunch of taverns gathered together with waiters trying to get you in and with large menus that look like books. Now I personally like the ambience of being in a touristy area in Greece. It usually is pretty (e.g. Plaka) and lively, but if you want to eat there, make sure you choose the right things so you are not disappointed. Safe (yet common) choices (dishes that are really hard to mess up) are:
- Greek Salad
- Fava (yellow split pea dip)
- Boiled Greens (Horta) accompanied with feta cheese
- Anchovies or Sardines-marinated or salted
- Lathera: Cooked vegetables in oil (see #2)
- Stewed Meat (see #4)
*Avoid fried things such as meatballs, small fish, fries not because they are fried but because many of these restaurants pre-fry these foods and then just warm them up. As a result you will be eating mushy and not crispy food. Also do not order moussaka. I know this will disappoint some people but really it is true. Ok, moussaka (which is not really Greek anyway — but that’s another story) is not a simple dish: it requires frying, making béchamel, layering everything, using the right spices and good ingredients and that means fresh oil. My mom makes one of the best moussakas I have tasted, but she makes it rarely because it takes so much time. So you are better off learning it yourself, then eating at a taverna, which most likely has been put together quickly and frozen and defrosted one piece at a time… and it is a shame to eat average moussaka.
2. Stop looking for Vegetarian Restaurants in Greece.
They do exist, but what you’ll get is overpriced non-Greek foods such as guacamole and vegetarian risottos. But honestly, if you have been reading my blog you probably realize by now that Greek cuisine has hundreds of vegetarian main courses. Considering that Greeks had to fast for over 200 days a year from animal products you realize that they had to come up with several vegetarian recipes. Summer is the perfect time to take advantage of all those wonderful lathera: vegetables cooked in olive oil and tomato with herbs. You can find in almost any tavern restaurant traditional vegetarian meals such fasolakia (green beans), briami (Greek version of ratatoille), gemista (tomatoes and peppers stuffed with rice), melitzanes (eggplant) as well as several appetizers such as Greek salads and dips. And don’t forget the pites (pies) a nice spanakopita (spinach pie) can make a complete meal.
3. Avoid places that have a little bit of everything.
These restaurants/taverns are all over the place. They have Greek food, they have pizza, they have pasta, they have burgers… most of the time they just have average food. Stick to places that offer one type of cuisine.
4. Greek food is not really about the meat.
Yes many will disagree with me, but here’s why: I often read articles about recommendations for Greek food and a common point is to try the grilled meat. I really do not understand why somebody would come to Greece, which is known for such a wide variety of vegetables and seafood dishes (especially in the summer), and order meat — particularly when they come from countries where they eat meat regularly. Having said that, I would recommend that you base most of your meals on the really special vegetable dishes and fish and on occasion try these meat dishes:
- Lamb and goat, some people have the impression that these meats have a strong taste, well sure, they do not taste like chicken, but generally good Greek lamb or goat has a mild taste and smell, not only due to the environment but by the fact that they are young and also by the way they are cooked.
- Stewed meat such as beef or chicken or lamb in tomato sauce (kokkinisto), or these dishes: pork with celery or lamb with greens (antidia), which are made with an egg-lemon sauce.
5. Choose Greek desserts.
Ok you are on vacation, so you will be having desserts (yes, I assure you, I am a nutritionist), but make sure you are choosing ones that you cannot find elsewhere. Some simple choices that are often offered at Greek restaurants are Greek yogurt with honey or preserves, amygdalota (fluffy almond-egg white cookies), phyllo and honey based desserts (baklava etc.), walnut cake (karythopita), Greek donuts with honey and walnuts (loukoumades), kaimaki and mastiha ice cream. Many restaurants will have plenty of chocolate-based desserts as well as cheesecakes, but really you can find that anywhere, so when it comes to desserts just go Greek.
6. Check out non-tourist guides.
If you want to find out where locals are going, you really need to look at what the locals are reading. I have not come across a good updated/current guide to restaurants in Greece in English, so I would recommend you check out Greek sites using Google translate such as athinorama.gr and fnl-guide.com for more up-to-date information on places to eat. I also have translated and developed a separate page with a list of restaurants that have been awarded best restaurants here in Greece. The awards are called Golden Chef’s Hats Awards and they are given by Athinorama. You can see the awarded restaurants by clicking here. Many of these restaurants also have Michelin stars. There is also a separate category for excellence in Greek cuisine which is also on the list. These are generally more down-to-earth restaurants and have good honest Greek food. I will be updating this list every year when the new list is announced.
Photo by Elena Paravantes