Looking for a spot of lunch in between sightseeing? These authentic restaurants cater to local office workers, old timers, and diehard regulars.
By Despina Trivolis
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Some things just get better with age, and these traditional restaurants are no exception. Whether you’re craving seafood, meatballs, or a little ouzo with your meal, there’s a restaurant for you. When it’s time to grab a midday meal, make sure to check out some of the best traditional spots in the city.
The neighbourhood of Psirri has experienced huge changes over the past 15 years. Originally a humble area famous for its tanneries, basket weavers and furniture makers, Psirri became a victim of its own success in the mid-00s, when it was overrun with nightclubs and bars. Today, the neighbourhood manages to strike a balance between trendy and traditional.
One of the few spots that remains unchanged is Nikitas, a family-run taverna situated on busy Agion Anargyron Street, which has been serving the same seasonal fare in the same spot for over 50 years. The food is reminiscent of home and hearth for most Greeks: soutzoukakia (spiced meatballs in a cinnamon-rich tomato sauce), gemista (tomatoes and peppers stuffed with spiced rice), and stewed beef with aubergines. It almost feels like you’re eating in a Greek grandma’s kitchen, and the service is a delight—meals are always dispatched quickly and with a smile.
Hidden inside an unassuming arcade on Lekka Street, near Syntagma Square, To Triantafyllo tis Nostimias is named after the owner, Triantafyllos, which means rose in Greek (yes, even men can be called Rose in Greece). The name roughly translates as “the rose of deliciousness.”
Don’t be fooled by the modest surroundings. This is one of the few places in downtown Athens where you can eat fresh seafood at reasonable prices. Triantafyllos, who hails from the island of Lesvos, personally picks out the freshest fish from the Varvakios Agora (Athens Central Market) every morning. Whitebait and sardines are offered in two variations—flash-fried or pandremenes (butterflied, grilled and topped with raw onions and fresh herbs). Other standouts are pan-fried red mullet and grilled cuttlefish. For vegetarians, there’s a spectacular fava (pureed yellow split peas) topped with olive oil, capers, and onions, the lightest kolokythokeftedes (courgette and feta fritters) and fabulous patates tiganites (thick cut French fries). It closes when the food runs out—usually around 7 pm.
Another great spot for affordable seafood in the city centre, Lesvos is an authentic ouzeri—a place to enjoy ouzo paired with sharing plates. This place has plenty of vintage appeal. There’s a jukebox, a winding staircase leading to a tiny balcony with two tables, and occasionally a woman who sings old Greek songs and plays the piano with gusto beneath a tinkling chandelier.
The menu centres on meze (Greek-style tapas): anything from small fry to grilled octopus, vlita (wilted greens dressed with olive oil and lemon), as well as ample portions of ladotiri, a sheep’s cheese from Lesvos with a rich, peppery flavour, may land on your table at any time. Lunches are apt to last a long while here.
Epirus might be the most classic lunchtime spot in the city.
Photo: Manos Chatzikonstantis
If you have never been inside the central Athens food market, this is a very good reason to go. The Varvakios Agora, as it’s officially known, is divided into two sections: meat and fish. Tucked among the bloodied butchers’ stands, this eatery is definitely not for vegetarians or the faint of heart. The cheery butchers advertise their wares by shouting about their carcasses and every cut of meat you can (and cannot) imagine, from sheep’s heads to lolling ox tongues.
Oinomageirion Epirus has large windows that allow you to survey some of Athens’ most interesting characters while eating your lunch. The food is served in enormous saucepans and baking trays—don’t be intimidated by the variety. The specialty here is soup; they cook up at least five different types of soup every day, perfect for a cold winter’s day. The star dish is patsas (tripe soup, complete with floating innards). Try it, if you dare; it’s rumoured to cure hangovers.
In the heart of the hustle and bustle of Athens’ main meat and fish market, Diporto has not changed a jot since the 1950s, when the current owner took over. A basement tavern with two entrances (hence the name diporto, literally meaning double doors) this place has been in business since 1887. Its humble menu was originally geared towards workers at the market, but Diporto’s old-fashioned décor and menu has also become popular with politicians, artists and curious tourists.
Inside, it’s dark and smoky, with marble sinks in plain view and gigantic wine barrels covering the wall, a few tables scattered around a concrete floor. Diporto feels like a trip to 1950s Athens. Only a few rustic dishes are served daily: small fry, a Greek salad, broad beans in tomato sauce and boiled greens are usually on offer, but Diporto’s specialty is a hearty chickpea soup. Cooked with onions and olive oil with a warming, melt in the mouth texture, it’s humble home cooking at its best. Don’t forget to wash down your food with some retsina wine—the house specialty.