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!
What & When to Eat
Greeks are more concerned with the quality and freshness of their food than they are with the place where it’s served, which could literally be falling apart without anyone’s minding, as long as the meal is good. Fruits and vegetables taste strong and fresh (you will likely remember the taste of a tomato long after returning home), and portions are generous. Other hallmarks of good Greek food are the generous use of pungent herbs for both flavoring food and making teas, and the generous use of olive oil.
For breakfast and as a snack, various savory pies are sold at countless holes-in-the-wall. Tiropita (cheese), spanakopita (spinach), and bougasta (cream/semolina) are the most common of these pies. Koulouri (round bread “sticks”), roasted chestnuts, and corn on the cob are sold on the street.
The midday meal is the biggest of the day, eaten at home around 2 or 3pm after being cooked in the morning by Mama or Grandma. Students are dismissed from school around 1pm, and shops and businesses close between 1:30 and 3pm. In the summer, when the heat of the day is unbearable, the midday meal is followed by a siesta. Then, depending on the day, it’s back to work, out for the evening stroll, and then out for dinner at 10pm. Kids and all. If you want to eat where the locals do, look for restaurants that are full at 10pm—the Greek dinner hour. Dining in Greece is not a staid affair, and it’ll be boisterous.
Note that restaurants that cater to tourists are open all day or at least earlier than the usual 7pm. You’ll find these in tourist centers such as Plaka in Athens, and at beach resorts.
Countless neighborhood tavernas (square tables, paper tablecloths, woven-seat chairs) serve simple Greek food in big portions with barrel wine. There are many other kinds of restaurants, as well. There are also psistaria (grill restaurants) that serve up steaks and souvlaki (kebabs), and the mageiria, or cookhouses, serving buffet-style stews with rice, pasta, meat sauce, and fish. Generally, the mageireia is the Greek equivalent of the fast-food joint, except the food is slow-cooked and kept warm; it’s ready to serve when you walk in—the kind of place where you can sit down for lunch and eat by yourself. 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. Ouzeries specialize in starters, traditionally washed down with the anise-flavored liqueur ouzo. While an ouzeri is usually similar to a kafeneion (but with the emphasis more on ouzo), the food often a bit heartier, often including grilled sausage or octopus.
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.
Menus in tourist-oriented restaurants 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. 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 5% to 10% at a simple place, more at a fancier establishment with noteworthy service. Some Greeks do and some do not tip in family-owned and -operated places, but the wait staff, counting on seasonal earnings, often expect a tip from foreign tourists. As anywhere, feel no obligation to tip when service is poor or indifferent, but service in Greece is usually so friendly and personal that you’ll want to leave something.
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—it’s for a good reason that the week after Easter, most newspapers carry supplements on “How to Lose the Weight You Gained at Easter.”
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 downhome, 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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
Greeks eat a lot of starters, called mezedes or meze, which include dips and salads, before the main course or on their own. There’s always a bowl of salad, usually Greek horiatiki, or village salad. A taverna meal usually starts with meze, whereas they’re the main course at ouzeries, late-evening joints where you wash down the snacks with ouzo, an anise-flavored liqueur. Of the dips, tzatziki with yogurt, garlic, and cucumber is popular, as is fava, a bean purée. Sample a selection of kroketes (croquettes) made with potato, cheese, zucchini, or tomato if they’re on the menu, or seafood dishes such as marinated or grilled ochtapodi (octopus) or melitzanosalata (eggplant salad).
Meat & Fish
Greeks say “Get to the roast” when they mean “Get to the point.” Meat is popular even in this nation surrounded by the sea, whether it’s a brizola (plain cut steak) or chop, stifado (rabbit stew), or lemonato (lemon-flavored roast).
Kebabs—better known here as souvlaki (small spit) or gyro (meat shaved off a vertical rotisserie)—are usually served with different kinds of pitas and sauces to slather and wrap around the pieces of chicken or pork.
Moschari yiouvetsi is chunks of beef baked with orzo pasta, onion, tomato, and wine in individual clay pots. Another baked dish is arni kleftiko: lamb usually cooked with cheese and herbs in a packet of wax paper. More lamb dishes are arni psito or arni tou fournou, roasted with garlic and herbs. Katsika (goat) is cooked in a similar way.
You can also get beef stifado, a stew made with copious amounts of wine, rosemary, tomato, and baby onions. You’ve likely never seen a slab of brizola hirini (pork) like those you’ll get here, which have no resemblance to the small North American chops. Get it as a cheaper but filling and tasty substitute for brizola moscharisia (beef steak). Avgolemono (egg-and-lemon sauce) also goes with pork, lamb or pastitsio, a lasagna made with ground beef and macaroni. Layered with potatoes, eggplant, and béchamel, it becomes moussaka.
Ground beef is also the main ingredient for keftedes, a meat patty that can stand alone, “beefed up” with egg, grated onion, bread crumbs, and spices, then coated in flour before being fried. Mixed with rice and dropped in water with an avgolemono sauce, it becomes giouvarlakia. Biftekia is a meat patty, not beef steak. You can also find gemista (ground beef mixed with rice and stuffed in large tomatoes or green peppers), cabbage, vine leaves, kolokithakia gemista (zucchini/courgettes), and papoutsakia (eggplant/aubergines, meaning little shoes).
As for the bounty of the sea: a psarotaverna is a restaurant that serves mainly fish. The fresh catch will often will displayed on ice, or the waiter will bring around a fish to show it off and display its freshness, then often fillet it at the table. A good restaurant will also explain exactly how your choice will be prepared—most fish are best when grilled and sprinkled with mountain herbs. Fish is usually sold by the kilo, not the serving, so be sure to clarify the cost before ordering.
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 have started to serve a free dessert, ranging from simple apple slices with honey and cinnamon to ice-cream confections topped with sparklers. Yogurt (yiaourti) is best when served from a traditional clay container and drizzled with honey (meli). Mustalevra, grape must and flour, is dark, wobbly, and sweet. Baklava is flaky, thin phyllo pastry layered with walnuts and pistachios and soaked in honey syrup; variations include a candied fruit or chocolate center. Dandourma is an ice cream concoction mixed with milk and cherry syrup, and kaimaki is a uniquely flavored ice cream (literally frozen cream).
Harsh-tasting retsina, the strong pine-resin wine that actually accompanies some Greek foods quite nicely, is a small part of the story of Greek wine, which extends back some 6,500 years and even has a hero, Dionysus, the god of wine. In antiquity, it’s believed that Greeks didn’t drink wine with their dinner but paired it with fruit, nuts, and desserts. It was also watered down by the host, as it still is in some restaurants, especially at the height of summer.
In tavernas, you may or may not shun barrel wine (krasi), ordered by the kilo (not liter), and brought to the table in distinctive tin jugs. The better grapes are normally reserved for bottles, but if you can lower your nose, so to speak, this is all part of the taverna experience. Most of the time, it’ll be pretty good.
Rosés also shouldn’t be ignored, as these are produced mainly in the mountainous regions and go well with a mix of dishes such as meze. In rural areas and on the islands, wine is produced (and if not bottled, then barreled) on the family plot, alongside the cans of olive oil and jars of honey. It may not be great, but families have had the opportunity to perfect their techniques over the years, and some have turned into well-respected wine estates.
There’s also a huge selection to choose from, from regions and domaines all over the country. We have our favorites (Amethystos is consistently good), but we aren’t above buying the local hima—barrel wine sold at the corner store in 1.5-liter water bottles. Some wines can be excellent one year and less good the next, so ask at the neighborhood cava (wine shop/off-license/liquor store) for a recommendation.
For more on Greek wines, check out www.greekwineworld.gr, or get a copy of Nico Manessis's The Illustrated Greek Wine Book (Olive Press).
Although most Greeks now prefer whiskey, the national distilled drink is still this clear, licorice-flavored liqueur that turns cloudy when you add water, though you can also drink it neat. It is said to be called “uso” from the phrase “Anis Uso Per Marsilia” stamped on sacks of anise imported from Sicily but meant for Marseilles. Ouzo is made from fermented grape skins, mixed with star anise and other herbs, boiled in a still, and stored for a few months before being diluted to 80 proof/40% alcohol. Drink too much and you’ll get a killer headache; one or two glasses is enough. It’s usually consumed with appetizers and seafood (hence ouzeries), on islands and by the seaside. It was traditionally the drink of fishermen and at kafenia (coffee shops), where you still find older men sitting around drinking ouzo as they talk and play cards or backgammon.
Crete’s version, raki (lion’s milk), also Turkey’s national drink, isn’t flavored with anise and is more like Italian grappa. It’s called tsipouro in other regions of the country. You can get smooth rako-melo (raki and honey) on some of the Cyclades islands.
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.