The other day, while waiting to have a haircut in the Peloponnesian village where I spend most of my time in Greece, I eavesdropped on the other customers. If I had not known some Greek, I would have thought that the gaggle of grandmotherly women were having a fierce argument. Voices were raised and disapproving fingers were shaken. What was the topic? That day's lunch, and how best to prepare it. The women were comparing, in minute detail, the way each would prepare her stuffed eggplant, her chicken stew, or her bean soup. Voices were raised over the precise amount of dill to use, the variety of onion best suited for the stew, and whether the season's first tomatoes were worthy of taking their place in a salad, or still to be used only for sauce.
Greeks take what they eat, and how it is prepared, very seriously. Whereas many non-Greeks go to a restaurant in the hopes of getting something different from home cooking, in Greece it is always high praise to say that a restaurant's food is spitiko (homemade). Here are some tips on places to eat in Greece and what to eat there.
As to prices in restaurants and cafes, throughout the guide we try to tell you the best -- and best value -- inexpensive, moderate, and expensive places. Keep in mind that the prices at the most expensive place in a country hamlet could be an amazing bargain in Athens. As for prices on Mykonos and Santorini, if you sit down at a popular cafe and have a coffee or a glass of wine, you'll find out just how expensive even simple pleasures can be in Greece's most popular tourist destinations!
Meals & Dining Customs
Although you may find many of the same dishes and drinks in different kinds of places, it's useful to know what's out there. Almost every village has at least one kafeneion (coffeehouse), and usually two. It would take a team of anthropologists working with a team of sociologists to figure out how most Greeks choose their favorite local kafeneion. When I asked a friend why she always went to the kafeneion in the main square in our village, she replied that she could not remember why, but thought it had to do with a disagreement a friend of hers had had several decades earlier with the owner of the other kafeneion. Often clients chose their kafeneion based on political ideology or profession (whether white or blue collar). Families, and women on their own, usually sit at tables outside. Indoors, the kafeneion is still an almost exclusively male establishment and often functions as a clubhouse. Men stop by, play a hand of cards or tabli (backgammon), and nurse a coffee or an ouzo for hours.
Greeks almost never drink without eating something, if only some chunks of feta cheese, a few olives, and perhaps some cucumber and tomato slices. This is an especially wise custom, especially when drinking fiery and potent ouzo, which turns a deceptively milky hue when diluted with water. An ouzeri is usually similar to a kafeneion, but with the emphasis more on ouzo, and the food often a bit heartier, often including grilled sausage or octopus. Thessaloniki is famous for its ouzeries, which are often filled wall to wall with both the beautiful people and the passers-by.
It is perfectly possible, and very satisfying, to make a full meal from a selection of mezedes (appetizers) at an ouzeri. Two recent additions to the scene include the Fastfooddadiko and the lounge bar. The fastfooddadiko, as its name suggests, serves snacks, either to go or to munch at the counter. Souvlaki joints usually stick to souvlaki and gyro, with or without pita bread. The lounge bar, an offspring of the disco, is usually a cafe with elaborate decor (mirrors, reflecting globes, massive flatscreen TVs), where full meals may be served and whiskey usually flows. The important thing at the lounge bar is to see and be seen and to survive the assault of the amplified music.
Restaurants serving full meals fall into a number of categories: a psistaria usually specializes in grilled meat, sometimes the koukouretsi (entrails) that are especially popular in Larissa and Lamia, while a psarotaverna serves mainly fish. As for the estiatorio, I'm still trying to figure out the real difference between a taverna and an estiatorio. At both, as at an ouzeri, you can make a full meal from mezedes. In theory, the taverna is more down home, the estiatorio more prone to certain refinements. There was a time when you could tell which was which by checking to see if the tablecloth was paper or cloth, but now, many chic places are deliberately casual and use paper cloths, while many simple places have a paper cloth on top of a cloth cover. Still, a taverna is usually a bit less formal, with less choice on the menu, than an estiatorio. Both usually have magireio, vegetable or meat stews prepared in advance, usually tastier at lunch than in the evening, by which time they have been sitting around for a while. Greeks think that some dishes, such as the vegetable stew called briam, benefit from this process, with the flavors getting extra time to mingle. Foreigners usually think the veggies get overcooked and soggy as the day goes on.
Many Greek restaurants do not serve dessert, and Greeks often troop off after a meal to a pastry shop (the tongue-twisting zacharopolasteion). In recent years, many tavernas and estiatoria have started to serve a free dessert, ranging from simple apple slices with honey and cinnamon to ice-cream confections topped with sparklers. Cafes and coffee shops usually serve light snacks, and some people head to them for dessert.
A few suggestions that may come in handy wherever you eat: Greeks usually tend to skip breakfast, or have a light snack in midmorning. If you stay in a hotel that offers breakfast, you won't have to look for a place that serves some approximation of a familiar breakfast. Greeks make lunch their big meal of the day, and eat it between 2 and 3pm. Especially in summer, Greeks often head to a cafe for some ice cream around 8pm. Dinner is often a light meal, seldom eaten earlier than 9pm, but when Greeks do go out to dinner, they usually don't think of eating before 10pm. If you want to be sure of a table, try for the off hours -- and be prepared to have the place to yourself and other foreigners.
Menus are usually in Greek and English, but if not, just ask for help from your waiter, who is probably fluent in restaurant English. He may even take you into the kitchen to eye what's available. Often, the printed menu has little bearing on what is available, and it never hurts to ask what's special that day. As to water, if you want tap water, not bottled, ask for it from the vrisi (tap). If you want the house wine, ask what their own wine is (to diko sas krasi), lest you be guided to much more expensive bottled wine. Increasingly, however, the house wine is not local, but just a cheap, mass-produced wine, perhaps "decanted" surreptitiously from a large cardboard container hidden away in the kitchen.
Service is included in the bill, but it is customary to leave your waiter another 10% at a simple place, and 15% at a fancy place. Some Greeks do and some do not tip in family owned and operated places. If you go out with Greek friends, prepare to go late and stay late and to put up a losing fight for the bill. Greeks frown on bill splitting; usually, one person is host, and that is that. And, if you are invited to a Greek home for a meal, assume that everything will run hours late and that you will be offered an unimaginable amount of food. This is especially true on holidays, particularly Easter, when families spend most of their time preparing and eating roast lamb and all the fixings from the time that the Holy Saturday service ends at midnight until sunset on Easter day.
Another thing: Greeks do not waste food. The traditional margeritsa soup that breaks the Lenten fast includes the entrails of the lamb that makes up the Easter dinner. Easter is the big feast day of the year, with feasting continuing on Easter Monday. The week after Easter, most newspapers carry supplements on "How to Lose the Weight You Gained at Easter."
Although fresh ingredients are vital, excellent olive oil is the one essential in Greek cuisine. Ineptly translated menus often offer "oilies," the vegetable stew that you may know better as briam, or ratatouille. The seriousness of the forest fires that have swept so much of Greece each summer since 2007 struck home when there were reports that Greece would have to do the unthinkable and import olive oil. Greeks consume more olive oil than any other nation (some 30 liters per person per year) and they want that oil to be not just Greek, but from specific regions, preferably from specific groves. The olives of the Peloponnese are especially admired, with Kalamata olives prized both for oil and eating. In 2010, the several infestations that threatened the Peloponnesian oil harvest were a staple of worried conversations there. In recent years, there has been a burst of interest in organic and virgin olive oil and you'll probably see shops in major tourist destinations such as Olympia, Delphi, and Nafplion with varieties of olive oil from around Greece, as well as olive oil products such as soaps, shampoos, and lotions.
Cheese is the other staple of the Greek diet. Some visitors to Greece leave thinking that feta is the only Greek cheese. They are wrong. Although a slab of feta, usually sprinkled with oregano, tops most Greek salads, there's a wide variety of cheeses. Most Greek cheeses, like feta, are made from sheep or goat's milk. Creamy mizithra is more delicate than feta, best when eaten fresh and soft, but useful when cured and grated on pasta. Kefalotyri and graviera are popular favorites, slightly bland, but with enough tang to be interesting.
Until recently, the standard Greek snack was a handful of olives, a chunk of bread, and a slab of cheese. Now, alas, potato chips are in the ascendency, as is childhood obesity. Still, fresh Greek fruit and vegetables in season are top notch and still make up a major part of the Greek diet. The first zucchini, peas, and green beans of the season are eagerly anticipated. Unfortunately, the widespread proliferation of hothouse gardening means that more and more fruit is picked before it has ripened. And, like the fruit in supermarkets almost everywhere else, more and more Greek peaches and apricots, melons and pears, look beautiful but taste, well, tasteless.
With oil, cheese, and fresh produce very popular throughout Greece, it's often said that there are few regional differences in Greek cuisine. While it is true that you can sit down to moussaka (veal in red sauce or stuffed eggplant) anywhere in Greece, each region is fiercely proud of its own version of the national favorites. The revithadha (chickpea) soup of Sifnos is famous throughout Greece, as are the almond cookies of Andros and Naupaktos. Loukoumi from Siros -- to me indistinguishable from any other chewy piece of what the unwary visitor calls Turkish delight -- is prized above all other loukoumi. The spread of supermarkets means that you can get loukoumi from Siros in supermarkets throughout Greece. Still, bringing home a souvenir box of loukoumi from Siros for the neighbors is as popular in Greece as bringing home maple syrup from Vermont is in the United States.
Here are a few dishes that have particular local associations to look for as you travel: In the Peloponnese, where the olive oil is plentiful and delicious, vegetable stews steeped in oil are almost always on the spring and summer menu. The slender eggplant of Leonidion in the southeast Peloponnese are so prized that they have their own celebratory festivals each May and August. Chefs vie to make the tastiest stuffed, baked, and puréed eggplant dishes. The yogurt from the Arcadian village of Vitina is famous throughout the Peloponnese and beyond. On Tinos, if you order an omelet, be prepared for some serious eating: The Tinian version includes potatoes, sausages, and just about anything else available. In Thessaloniki, where the food is spicier than anywhere else in Greece, mussels with pilaf are a local favorite. As to loukanika (sausages), almost every district has one or more local versions, ranging from quite sweet to fiery.
The Greek wine that almost every visitor to Greece has heard of is the one that almost no foreigner loves: retsina. It's the pine resin that's added to the brew to preserve the wine that gives the pungent taste. Most retsina is either white or rose, and most non-Greeks like theirs good and cold. In recent years, the Greek wine industry has taken off, with Boutari and Tsantali vintages becoming well known outside Greece. In general, reds from the Naoussa area of Macedonia and Nemea in the Peloponnese are excellent, as are whites (especially the prized assyrtikos) from Santorini and Crete. It's always a good idea to ask if the restaurant has a local wine. Another thing to remember: There's a wide variety of sweet Greek dessert wines. If you like sweet wines, you are in luck. If not, by all means avoid mavrodaphne and vinsanto -- and don't even think about trying the syrupy Greek fruit liqueurs! For more on Greek wines, check out www.greekwineworld.com, or get a copy of Nico Manessis's The Illustrated Greek Wine Book (Olive Press).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.