When you picture the Greek islands, you might imagine whitewashed villages and blue domed churches, not weathered stone buildings and snow-capped mountains. This is Crete: a study in geographic contrasts, with cliffs that sink into brilliant blue water, lush forests and soaring canyons.
Crete is the largest, most populous of the Greek islands. It’s also culturally distinct from the mainland. Many locals will tell you they are first Cretan, then Greek. It’s partly down to history. Crete was home to the Minoans, the first civilisation in Europe, but was later conquered by the Mycenaeans, the Doreans, the Romans, the Byzantines and Arabs, until it was sold to the Venetians, who turned it over to the Turks in 1669. While Greece gained independence in 1821, Crete remained under Ottoman rule for almost another hundred years. It wasn’t even officially part of Greece until 1913.
All these occupations have left their stamp on Crete. You’ll find Minoan ruins, Venetian-style towns, mosques and medieval churches. Crete’s music is also distinctive; they play the lyra, a three-stringed instrument, and engage in mandinatha, a type of freestyle poetry usually set to music. Finally, there’s the food. Crete is famed for having some of the finest products in Greece. It’s the perfect place to forage for greens and herbs, and thanks to the island’s natural diversity of flora, animals that graze there produce fantastically flavourful milk, cheese, and meat. Other culinary traditions—like the snails that locals gather by the sea—stem from past poverty; peasants gathered what they could, and snails, fortunately, are quite high in protein and easy to prepare.
Crete on a Plate
If you’re heading to a Cretan restaurant while in Athens, you’ll find a few mainstays on the menu: dakos, a salad consisting of a hard barley rusk covered in diced tomatoes, soft mizithra cheese, oregano, capers and olives. There’s apaki, smoked and salted pork that can be eaten like charcuterie or cooked. Skioufichta, a type of pasta specific to Crete, is usually served with local cheese or meat. Do look out for symbetherio, a veggie-based casserole, too.
Above all, Cretan cooking is about freshness and provenance—dishes are prepared as simply as possible so the ingredients take centre stage. Here are some Cretan restaurants in Athens that will transport you right to the island with their food, atmosphere and music.
This small Keramikos spot, opened in 2017 by two friends who grew up on Crete, is one of my favourites (we’ve also covered it in our affordable eats itinerary). The menu isn’t enormous, but you’ll find amazing home-cooked traditional sharing plates all day and a lively atmosphere well into the night. (If you follow them on Facebook, you’ll get to see the daily specials before you go; these might include potato salad, skioufichta, fresh pasta with minced meat and xinomizithra cheese, and marathopita, a pie stuffed with Cretan greens and herbs.) It’s a great place to hit up in the evening for some small bites and raki (a liquor made from grape skins that’s wildly popular on Crete). The music is traditional Cretan and the snug space creates a homey feel.
Embedded in Kanigos Square, this is one of the most established Cretan restaurants in the city—it’s been around for 33 years. The restaurant sits inside an arcade with two indoor areas split in half by a small section of outdoor seating. It’s casual and definitely not fancy, but the food is some of the best in Athens. I tried courgette fritters, dakos, and their chickpea salad. But the most memorable dish was the baby goat stuffed with rice, herbs, and cheese. It came at the end of the meal, and even though I was already pleasantly stuffed, I could not stop eating it. This small restaurant is always packed, so make sure to call ahead to reserve a table.
If you’re up for a bit of a hike to the southern suburb of Ilioupoli (then a 15 minute walk from the Ilioupoli metro stop), Rachati is a great spot for a taste of Crete. It has the feel of an island taverna: small, casual and relaxed, with photographs of Cretan musicians hanging on the walls. The restaurant’s meze-centric menu is full of traditional Cretan food (think sharing dishes like mizithropites, small pies made with mizithra). The recipes come from the owner’s grandmother and most of the products are sourced from Lasithi, a region in eastern Crete. Check their Facebook page for information on occasional live music performances.
"The recipes come from the owner’s grandmother and most of the products are sourced from Lasithi, a region in eastern Crete."
If you decide to venture to Holargos, a residential area on the outskirts of central Athens, the first thing you might notice is that Biftekaki sets itself apart from many other Cretan restaurants in the city: it has more of a bright, modern feel (though the requisite black and white photos of Cretan musicians still make an appearance). Naturally, the menu features excellent bifteki, or meat patties, made of lamb and beef, as well as lots of other char-grilled meats. If you’ve wearied of raki, make sure to try marouvas instead. It’s another Cretan drink, a traditional red-varietal wine that is quite strong, so enjoy with caution.
When Yiannis Begnis opened Rakoumel with his mother, it was the first Cretan restaurant in Exarchia. While the atmosphere of this edgy neighbourhood has changed over time, the food here has remained consistent. One of my favourite dishes is the egg with tomato and staka, a clarified goat’s milk butter similar to ghee. The vibe at Rakoumel is also very traditional: “Our goal always was to capture the same feeling of visiting a Cretan village kafenion,” says Begnis. If you’re in Athens over a weekend, don’t miss laiki and raki, a daytime event that happens after the Exarchia weekly farmer’s market, or laiki. There’s live music and lots of shots of raki are consumed well into the afternoon, in true Cretan style.
All the food at Patouchas is great, but there’s one main draw here. This large Kallithea restaurant has an andikristo, which is a special grill consisting of a set of vertical poles set up in a circle around a fire. There are multiple levels, so meat can hang close to the ground or higher up, depending on how you want to cook it. Manolis, the owner of Patouchas, made this indoor grill himself based on the ones you find in Cretan courtyards and gardens. As the meat is grilled, the fat runs down and gathers in metal tins at the bottom, and the remaining meat is fresh and lean. It takes about two hours to cook both sides of the lamb, chicken, or pancetta, which you order by weight. It’s the only andikristo in town, so make sure to check it out.
To Rakaki has been around for about 12 years, so it’s safe to say that it’s an Athenian favourite. It sits right on lively Kesariani Square, a popular neighbourhood hangout lined with many restaurants. It’s a perfect place to snag an outdoor table and sit for a few hours over Sunday lunch. It’s inexpensive, and the menu highlights all the Cretan classics, from snails to stamnagathi, foraged greens found all over the island, which are supposedly part of the reason for the locals’ impressive longevity. The restaurant’s name, “rakaki,” also invokes the Cretan spirit; it’s the diminutive of raki, so expect to see it flowing liberally in this restaurant.
"A tiny deli crammed with amazing Cretan delicacies, from specialty cheeses and meats (hello, apaki) to herbal teas, and honey. Some of it is incredibly rare."
Want to bring some Cretan products home with you? We don’t blame you, they make perfect souvenirs. Sympetheroi, just below Exarchia Square, is a tiny deli crammed with amazing Cretan delicacies, from specialty cheeses and meats (hello, apaki) to herbal teas, and honey. Some of it is incredibly rare; you’ll find herbs like diktamo, or dittany, which has been known since antiquity for its medicinal properties (Hippocrates was a fan) but it’s not widely available elsewhere. The staff has the lowdown on everything there, and they’ll help you find something familiar, or a new favourite.