Let’s talk about clichés. Greek food clichés in particular, reinforced by compulsive viewing of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where all the protagonists eat spit-roast meat, drink retsina and shout opa every 3 seconds. Or the “typical” tourist taverna meal of moussaka, Greek salad and fried slabs of industrial–looking cheese.
This image only tells part of the story. It has a lot to do with Greek restaurants abroad up until the 90s—mainly low-budget diners or tavernas—and how Greek dishes were “interpreted” to accommodate the first wave of mass tourism in Greece in the 1980s. Luckily though, a new generation of chefs has begun to explore the true potential of seasonal and regional ingredients to create a contemporary Greek cuisine that is fresh and playful. The cheeses and rusks of Crete, olive oil from the Peloponnese, and beans and cold cuts from Northern Greece are finally getting the role they deserve in the Greek culinary landscape.
Below are some of our favourite spots to sample the new wave of creative Greek cooking.
Cherchez La Femme (Σερσέ λα φαμ)
One of those elusive places where you can sit grazing or drinking all day long. Located on a pedestrian square on Mitropoleos Street, right behind the Athens Cathedral, it’s the perfect spot for lounging, especially in the summer. And the affordable prices make lounging, well, affordable. Despite the relaxed vibe, this place pays attention to detail, from the vase of freshly cut flowers on the bar to the vintage décor and, of course, the food. Charismatic Greek chef Andreas Lagos has devised a nostalgic yet modern menu of meze-type dishes meant to be shared. There is a strong regional flavour, such as a salad with baby tomatoes, carob rusks, xinomizithra (soft white cheese made of ewe’s and goat’s milk) and pickled kritamo (a wild succulent plant growing by the seaside, whose flowers and leaves are often pickled) or fried potatoes slathered with melting kasseri (a sweet, yellow cheese) and thin slices of peppery sausage, hailing from the island of Lefkada. Also worth mentioning here is the Greek coffee, served on a tiny silver platter with a small bite of loukoumi (Turkish delight) on the side.
At first glance Delta, Athens’ newest entry on the fine restaurant scene, is as far removed from a Greek restaurant as possible. But the Greekness simmers away in the background. The two chefs Thanos Feskos and George Papazacharias have spent years in Michelin-starred restaurants in Denmark and Norway respectively. It shows. Their 17 course menu comes in three options: omnivore, vegetarian or vegan (the latter two are previously unheard of on Greece’s fine dining circuit). The duo also uses rare in Greece techniques such as fermentation and preservation to experiment with a number of quintessentially Greek ingredients. The lamb sweetbreads dish with sour milk (xynogala) is one such highlight of the omnivore menu; the fish roe and squid another. The classic Greek dessert halva comes inside a pine cone; while the eclectic cocktail menu is pure Athens; designed by the capital’s cocktail king Thanos Prunarus, the heart and soul behind Baba au Rum, one of Athens’ top billed cocktail bars. Delta is housed on the 5th floor of the Greek National Opera in a luxurious, futuristic space. With stunning views over Piraeus, this is bound to be a memorable experience for those interested in trying a more experimental, contemporary mode of Greek cooking.
Located in a neoclassical building in Koukaki, an area which Airbnb declared to be one of the “hottest” destinations in Europe, and very close to the Acropolis Museum, Mani Mani has been a hit with travellers for quite a few years. The menu, inspired by the cuisine of Mani in the Peloponnese, offers a range of regional favourites, such as travihtes (fried dough balls with kefalotiri cheese). But the star dish is the rooster, a traditional specialty in Greece usually reserved for big celebrations. Here, the rooster is stuffed with mushrooms and a salty pecorino cheese from Amfilochia, served on a bed of mashed potato with a smoked pork and leek sauce. The attentive service is an added plus. The only drawback is the lack of any outdoor seating space.
An instant hit from the moment it opened its doors in June 2019, FITA’s location is rather unexpected. Situated in the off-radar neighbourhood of Neos Kosmos, right behind Syngrou Avenue, the restaurant is bound to be a welcome addition for the residents of the many hotels situated nearby. The two chef-patrons, Fotis Fotinoglou (formerly of Seychelles) and Thodoris Kassavetes, have created an unpretentious gem of a restaurant, where the daily-changing menu is reasonably priced and full of surprises. The finest ingredients are sourced daily from different Greek producers to deliver a unique but simple menu with an emphasis on fish and seafood. A dish of gently cooked calamari on a bed of aromatic couscous, a simply dressed salad of ripest tomatoes and steamed almyra (a wild, seaside herb, similar to samphire), and sardines wrapped in vine leaves are but an appetiser of what you can taste here. The décor—bare walls, simple wooden chairs and tables, and an open kitchen with a few stools at the marble counter—is charming in its simplicity. It’s especially atmospheric at night, with metal tables spilling onto the tree-lined pavement beside the tramlines.
The contemporary vibe starts with the clever name. It derives from the Greek word sitisi which means “nourishment.” Young chef and owner Alexandros Tsiotinis sharpened his culinary skills alongside international heavyweights like Alain Passard, Helene Darroze and Pascal Barbot. He returned to Athens to set up his own place where he could take diners on “a gastronomic voyage.” CTC’s mood is modern, high-end and elegant. The tasting menus (including vegetarian and pescatarian options) change seasonally. Each dish has a rare finesse, with a masterful balance of flavours, aromas and presentation. Perhaps his most successful dish? The velvety corn soup with lobster, truffle foam and bergamot. Desserts are all about subtle flavours, delicate floral aromas, and a balance of sweet and sour. Indulge in the white chocolate namelaka (Japanese chocolate cream) with violet meringues and yoghurt sorbet.