As Athens creatively reinvents its casual dining scene, here’s where to enjoy the capital’s new wave of contemporary Greek meze and cut-above street eats.
By Alex Kavdas
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What better way to convey the Mediterranean “joy of life” than with the concept of “meze”? Dating back likely to ancient Greece, the word is said to come from the Persian “mazze”, meaning taste or snack. Right from inception, meze’s purpose was to be shared, and of course, to accompany alcohol (in particular, ouzo and tsipouro). To the uninitiated, a meze session usually amounts to numerous small portions of low cost, easy to assemble food, served in saucers: a sort of mouth entertainment, if you like, that keeps you in the moment and symbolises abundance. Fried fish, grilled octopus, battered vegetables, all sorts of creams, olives and bread are expected at the table. Declaring “one of each” to the waiter is the simplest order ever! Nowadays, meze is enjoying a big revival in Athens. Experienced chefs are revamping the genre from the ground up, with exceptional ingredients and unpredictable results. Follow us through some unmissable new Greek meze stops.
The Greek diner has landed. A team of five renowned chefs, behind some of the city’s top restaurants (Cookoovaya and Basegrill), decided to share some post-quarantine cosiness by setting up an easy-going, all day haunt. Inspired by international street food trends, the meat-oriented menu upends traditional Greek meze by using local products to recreate flavours from around the world. Set under tall plane trees at the locus of four typical Athenian streets in the city heart, Gastone is all about the “casual dining” concept: high quality cuisine served in a relaxed space (though prices are a notch above usual diner fare). While waiting for your order of regional cheese & charcuterie, or black pig and indigenous cow meatballs, visit the inside of this lofty 19th-century building to browse the transparent wine cellar and window-fridges filled with PDO products.
To experience one of the most revolutionary new meze spots in town, you’ll need to travel about 25 minutes north, to the outskirts of Athens. Half Spanish chef Miltos Armenis was on the verge of quitting the country, when fate and quarantine caught up with him. After meeting business partner Dimitris, they launched a colourful, open kitchen “greek tapas” restaurant in the Nea Filadelfia area, where Greek meze and their Spanish cousin, tapas, converge in a delectable combo. There’s a wood-fired oven (used for baking pies), and a fresh herb bed for seasoning their dishes. The restaurant also has its own organic vegetable garden and chickens who lay eggs for their tortilla of the day, or for the base of their baked chickpeas dish. Dip the handmade bread into the taramosalata (a Greek traditional paste of salted and cured roe), served in the most original way with sardine skeleton skewers as decoration. Paella is also available for four to six people, made with mussels, chicken, pork, squid, or whatever seafood and meats are available on the market. Ask for the off-menu tapas of the day and get ready to shout OPA-OLE!
Experienced Athenian chef and Instagram star Gogo loves both traditional ingredients and experimental recipes. She also loves to come up with ways to surprise people with what she puts on their plates. In an underground gallery, just off emblematic Omonia Square, Gogo has set up a gastro-café (as she calls it). What used to be the canteen for a tall office building, has now been renovated into a chilled spot to enjoy “grandma’s cuisine” with an edge. Forgotten or forsaken Greek ways of cooking have been revived for today: she’ll serve you humble beef in red sauce inside an unexpected bao bun, or some ewe meat in a refined tagliata cut. Just follow the staircase from street level to this fresh and comforting space. Dishes are switched up every month or so, but make sure you try the staples: Gogo’s meatballs (famous locally) and her signature trahanas, a porridge-like dish that her regulars also can’t get enough of.
During summer season (from May to September) the business will switch from underground arcade to rooftop views, as it will move over to the roof of Mosaikon Hotel.
Prepare to encounter a new species of souvlaki. Initially designed as a pop-up treat for our tastebuds during extended lockdown, this unconventional gourmet nook will steal your heart. Firstly, because it’s pink (right down to the wrapping on your food); so you can’t miss it among the cool cafes of Pangrati. Second, because the wiz behind it—Elvi Dimitris Zyba—has been tapped by Michelin as a chef to watch. More used to refined cuisine, Elvi wanted to dabble with street food. The result is an upgraded traditional Greek souvlaki where everything is handmade, from the pita bread (you might notice it’s thinner than usual); to the marinades and all the available sauces. Kick off with their “basic” model: beef, cabbage-carrot salad, aubergine cream and metsovone (semi-hard smoked) cheese. Then, take it to the next level: a chicken korma inspired wrap with vegetables boiled in almond milk, grilled tomatoes, chives and turmeric infused yogurt. Enjoy your hand-held feast out on the pavement stand in true street food mode.
The name means “Secret Garden” but this place is on everybody’s lips. The northern suburb of Chalandri is known for its vibey bars and vibrant restaurants. This spot, though, would elude most without insider intel. A simple façade does little to prepare you for what’s coming: there’s an open kitchen full of intoxicating smells; then, your final destination; a magical small terrace reminiscent of chilled summer moments on the islands. Chefs Dimitris and Sirios are two expert hands who have created a range of contemporary meze dishes that are reeling in the regulars, such as their “crunchy savoury pastry filled with Greek pastrami”. Other popular examples of their creative meze-based cuisine include fried sea bass with smoked mussels and fresh clams; and fried giant beans in tomato-garlic paste. The menu changes often, so surprises are in store for most visits. Be sure to book. Tables are few and fill up fast.
Dopios is another newcomer that makes you feel like you’ve been spirited off elsewhere: this time, to a quaint Greek village. Set behind the 11th century church of Agios Theodoros, this wonderful eaterie dishes up some of the finest meze in town—including cracking veggie and vegan options. Top chef Christophoros Peskias (of Balthazar and 48 The Restaurant fame) has created a hotspot where classic cuisine meets contemporary global gastronomy trends—and where some of the tastiest traditional products on your plate can be purchased to take home. Go native and order a flight of small plates such as the hummus with chickpeas from Lemnos island; the spicy cheese mousse with sour cherry jam; the smoked eel from the city of Arta with beetroot puree; and the pulled chicken from Ioannina. Under the shade of the centuries-old plane tree, accompany your meal with a Greek tipple like tsikoudia from Crete or smoked tsipouro, and close strong with the sweet and salty milk-pie called “tres-leches”.
A short walk from the Acropolis Museum, you may spot a bright blue cube, surrounded by yellow stools and a retro Mini Cooper the colour of sunshine parked out front like a pop art installation. This “dirty” spot is the little sibling of the lauded Athenian restaurant Mani Mani, showcasing the gastronomy of the South Peloponnese. Fifteen years after the original, the truck version has arrived to serve souvlaki made exclusively with products from Mani: meat, oil, cheese, salt—all straight from the motherland. Do not miss the “pita pockets”: small pouches made of pita bread hiding tasty treasures. Available in six variations, we suggest the moussaka variety; their star dish with cured pork and fig puree; or for more adventurous palates, the veal tail pocket. Typical souvlaki sauce, tzatziki, has been swapped for a spicy yoghurt sauce with chives. Don't miss the sous vide pancetta with ginger, honey vinegar, coriander, cabbage and mint yoghurt. The kitchen is open plan so you can watch and learn while you wait.