Psitopolia are no-frills Greek tavernas that specialise in char-grilled meats. The name derives from the verb psino, which means “to grill”, and poulao, which means “to sell”. A lot like the famous koutoukia, these traditional grill houses are very basic in style, as the focus is mainly on the quality and cuts of meat. Locals flock to these humble establishments year-round and often make a day trip out of it, as some of the best ones are located on the outskirts of Athens. This is because they require a special licence, due to the barbecue’s smoke—known as tsikna—that they produce. On the evening of Tsiknopempti, finding a table will be almost impossible unless you’ve thought ahead and made a reservation. Here’s a list of our favourite rustic meat tavernas in and around Athens.
To Steki tou Ilia
This local haunt, in the heart of Athens, is discreetly tucked away on a charming pedestrian street that runs parallel to the train tracks in Thissio. There are actually two taverna locations, only a few blocks apart. The street name changes half way down so it can be a little confusing. The first taverna is next to the church of St Athanasios. In winter, you’ll eat surrounded by wooden wine barrels with delicious, smoky aromas wafting from the huge charcoal grill in the open kitchen. In summer, the tables are set in a breezy, vine-clad courtyard beside the church. The second branch is a little further up the hill. You can’t miss the chequered tablecloths. The menu and food quality are exactly the same, so you can’t go wrong whichever one you choose. Ilias is deservedly famous for its lamb chops. Order them by the kilo, thinly sliced and piled on a platter that will land in the centre of your table. Squeeze plenty of lemon juice over them and eat them with your hands. If you use a knife and fork you'll be letting the crispy fat that touches the bone go to waste (and that's the best part!). Enjoy with a Greek salad, some tzatziki, and fried green peppers.
If you don’t want to steer too far away from the city centre or are looking to make a night of it by hitting a bar or two after food, head to Mavros Gatos in hipster Pangrati. This place is a classic neighbourhood taverna which makes the juiciest and tastiest paidakia (lamb chops) in the area. You almost feel that it’s expected to grab them with your hands and make a mess of the paper tablecloth, which is exactly what it’s there for. Open all day, Mavros Gatos offers crunchy fresh salads, exquisite classic Greek appetisers like tyrokafteri (cheese dip made with feta and chilli peppers) to scoop up with fresh french fries, and an array of starters and grilled meats for you to try. It’s also a great spot for families and especially popular for Sunday lunch.
While in Athens, chances are you’ll walk along Kolokotroni Street, the city’s unofficial mixologist headquarters. Tucked away beneath mimosa trees and amongst hip cocktail bars, fashion stores and boutique hotels is Paradosiakon (which means traditional.) The fact that it’s located in one of Athens’ liveliest areas might make you think “tourist trap”. Far from it. Mouth-watering meats turn on spits all-day long in this downtown value-for-money meat stop, luring in those who pass through its shaded front yard. Generous portions of kontosouvli (slowly spit roasted pork or chicken), kokoretsi (lamb offal wrapped in lamb intestines) and gourounopoulo (roasted piglet) are available on a first come, first served daily basis. If, by the time you arrive, they’re out, their grilled chicken is always a safe bet, as is their mixed grill platter and delicious grilled liver, all topped with a mountain of fries.
When you first walk in, you can easily mistake this place for a folklore museum. Seventy years old and going strong, Tsobanakos seems to have frozen in time. With a constant smile on his face, Theofilos is the third generation owner of this eatery which was also a regular hangout for legendary rebetiko musician Vassilis Tsitsanis (he even had his own set of keys to the place). Top choices include the oven roasted goat with potatoes, lamb chops, dolmadakia (rice-stuffed grape leaves), tzatziki, and the biftekia (grilled beef patties). To make sure you never forget eating here, they serve a complimentary dessert of glyko koutaliou (sweet preserve) with Greek yoghurt that will leave you with the sweetest of after tastes.
This family-run psitopolio in the southern suburbs of Athens was initially a cellar, where the grandfather of Ilias and Panagiotis (who now run the place), stored the wine he made and sold to the neighbourhood. Later on, his son turned the cellar into a koutouki, cooking for his many friends, some of whom brought their guitars and bouzoukia and sang late into the night. Now, the two brothers are in charge of the business and service ends. The kitchen, however, is run by Sofia, the mother. Remoutsiko’s speciality is kontosouvli and bifteki gemisto (stuffed beef patty), and rumour has it they serve the best lamb chops in all of Athens. The space is warm and hospitable, making you feel like you’re part of the family, while a crackling fireplace makes the meal even more enjoyable. If you prefer to feast outdoors, their garden is open year-round.
“For the full experience, order some kokoretsi and kontosouvli, a lettuce salad with spring onions and dill, and half a litre of their house red.”
Vlachika is in the southern suburbs of Athens (a good 45-min drive from the city centre) and if you visited a century ago you’d find nothing but shepherds grazing their sheep. Nowadays, you’ll find a stretch of rustic, grill house tavernas, all lined up in a row. Don’t be surprised if, outside one of these, you see a man dressed up in a traditional evzone-looking costume, wearing the pleated white skirt and pom-pom shoes, beckoning customers in with a shepherd’s crook. Although over the years, many of the restaurants on this strip shut down, Tsolias has endured. This is the place to taste a perfectly slow-cooked, spit-roast lamb, just like the one Greeks eat on Easter Sunday. For the full experience, order some kokoretsi and kontosouvli, a lettuce salad with spring onions and dill, and half a litre of their house red. If you’re visiting during summer, why not start your day at a nearby beach of the Athens Riviera and stop here to satisfy your cravings on your way back to the centre. You’ll be in good, local company.
Carnivorous adventures outside Athens
Got the time (and the appetite) to hunt down meat eateries around Athens? Not checking out these places will be a big missed steak.
A few metro stops west, this place is exclusively devoted to cuts of meat from around the world, grilled to perfection. The tables are crammed tight, so do make a reservation as it is very, very popular, especially at the weekend.
If you happen to find yourself in Piraeus, head to this family-owned neighbourhood staple, that grills delicious steaks and chops. Wash them down with the great house wine.
If you’re willing to travel outside the city, drive out to Kalyvia, on the eastern-south of Athens. Once you’re close it’s hard to get lost, as the smell of meat on charcoal will autopilot you there. There’s many tavernas to choose from, but Mourouzis is an all-time favourite of those in the know.
Taverna O Manolis
With the tagline "licensed to grill" you can be sure this haunt takes its grilling very seriously. Fresh fare and an area staple for the past five decades.