Ever heard of tzaziki? What about taramosalata? You’ll find these and so much more in the city's endless selection of flavours. Consider this your crash course in Greek classics (hello, feta cheese), along with some local Athenian favourites you won’t find on touristy menus. Start checking them off today.
Atherina at Kochili
A family-owned, neighbourhood fish restaurant in an accessible, working-class suburb of Athens, Kochili (which means ‘sea shell’) has a great selection of fairly priced seafood. When available, it’s always a good place to sample atherina (a type of tiny smelt). The portion is generous, the fish are truly minuscule and arrive at the table still crackling from the frying pan. Liberally squeeze lemon over the golden heap and eat with your fingers.
Taramosalata at Vassilenas
Older city guides often recommend the historic Vassilenas of Piraeus (established in 1920) and the Cretan restaurant Alatsi in the city centre. Alas, both are no longer in operation, but the former now occupies the latter’s address. The new Vassilenas is a sophisticated restaurant where you can expect to find fresh fish elegantly prepared, together with fine salads and creative desserts—and surprisingly good meat dishes, too. However, one unmissable classic stands out: the famous taramosalata (fish roe dip) made to the founder’s ‘secret’ recipe. This dish drew crowds to the original Piraeus restaurant and still amazes with its light, pearly colour, airy texture and smooth taste. Yes sir, this is the Rolls Royce of taramosalata.
Barbounia at Margaro
An old whitewashed house in a breezy pocket of Piraeus that will make your Instagram followers drool: charming, authentic and as Greek as its gets. You can always rely on eateries with short menus—and you won’t find a selection more restrained than this one: Greek salad, garides tiganites (fried shrimp) and barbounia (fried red mullet) plus, if you’re lucky, one or two extra options such as small red snappers (also, you guessed it, fried). The red mullets come out of the large frying pan a bright orangey-pink and wonderfully crunchy. You can eat the tail like a potato chip and most of the head, too. Wash them down with basic house wine and watch the sailors come and go into the Hellenic Naval Academy right opposite.
Hortopita at Cookoovaya
Arguably the best address to sample the ‘new’ (but not too fussy) Greek cuisine, this big and bright restaurant is the closest Athens has to offer in terms of a grande brasserie. The menu is extensive, at times pricey and changes regularly. A light and delicious dish that’s less expensive and is always on the menu is the hortopita, a freshly baked pie with fragrant wild greens, served on a wooden slab with a cooling yoghurt dip. So healthy and simple.
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Lahanodolmades at Oikonomou
An endearing neighbourhood institution, this is one of the best places in downtown Athens to sample inexpensive family-style food off the tourist track. Contrary to the cliché, Greeks don’t eat so many stuffed vine leaves, which are only available for a short summer period; but we truly love their cousin, lahanodolmades (stuffed cabbage leaves). Just as good, they almost never appear on touristy menus. A loosely moulded patty of lean beef and rice is rolled in tender cabbage leaves, which are then huddled together in the bottom of a large saucepan and gently stewed. Before they arrive at the table, the lahanodolmades are laced with a silky egg and lemon sauce.
Paidakia at Kritikos
Admittedly, this is an ambitious suggestion for travellers who are only passing through Athens; but if you have the time and feel adventurous (and love lamb chops) you will thank us. Kritikos, 20 kilometres from the city centre, is a well-staffed traditional grill house with a rich selection of meat cooked over a wood-fired grill. Here you are guaranteed to be served only the smallest and best paidakia (grilled lamb chops). Order the quantity you want by the kilo. They will arrive fanned out on a large plate, not heaped together with lesser cuts. The house red (Cabernet, bottled) is the perfect match.
Feta at Kostarelos
It may sound a little odd to suggest feta cheese as a stand-alone dish, but that is precisely how Greeks enjoy it at every meal: lying on a plate, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with oregano. Kostarelos is the place to try it: this family-run dairy specialises in lusciously creamy yoghurt and white cheeses, especially feta. Here you can sample feta plain or in a freshly made sandwich or salad. You can even take some home, as this little Kolonaki bistro is merely a front for a Greek deli in the rear. Do try their carefully aged feta—extra tangy and spicy.
Lakerda at Lesvos
A fantastic place for alfresco lunches on weekdays, this institution draws a crowd from nearby offices. It can look a little dreary in the evening, except when students from the Exarchia neighbourhood fire up the cranky old piano inside. While far from extraordinary, the food is reliable and the atmosphere reassuringly old school. Go for the fried shrimp, the good fava (split pea puree), gavros (freshly marinated anchovies), and above all the excellent lakerda, a lightly cured, melt-in-the-mouth bonito fish that works wonders with a drizzle of olive oil and some thinly sliced red onion. Tired of ouzo? Try some tsipouro (a grape distillate, like grappa) on ice, with your meal.
Tzatziki at Agios Merkourios
Tzatziki, the classic Greek yoghurt, garlic and cucumber dip, comes in two categories: the good homemade stuff and the store-bought. The quality of the yoghurt and the amount of garlic are what really make the difference. But you also have to know what company tzatziki likes to keep, namely fried potatoes, lamb chops and, most importantly, golden, battered slices of courgettes and aubergines. The best places to sample this repertoire are oikogeneiakes/exohikes psistaries, or family/countryside grill houses. Greeks come to these places around Athens in droves, crowded around tables of twenty friends, children and grandparents. There is always some chunky, garlicky tzatziki on every table. We recommend Agios Merkourios, right next to the former summer palace grounds of Tatoi, ideal for a digestive stroll (or nap) among the pine trees.
Galaktoboureko at Stani
And for dessert, it’s got to be galaktoboureko, the indulgent, syrupy, buttery custard pie, that’s the favourite sweet of every Greek (true story). Resisting the temptation to send you off the beaten track to find the best galaktoboureko, we recommend a cult spot right in the city centre—a rather downtrodden part of town that guests of Omonia’s budget hotels will appreciate. Stani has been serving milk products for over 85 years. Their sheep’s milk yoghurt is epic and all of their traditional desserts, from rice pudding to loukoumades (the Greek version of doughnuts) are freshly made. The galaktoboureko is a generous block of pale yellow custard, sandwiched between crisply baked filo pastry and drenched in syrup. We can think of no other sweet that is at once so childlike and decadent. Enjoy responsibly.