Eating and drinking in Greece
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Although many visitors get by on moussaka or kalamári almost every night, there is a huge range to Greek cuisine, not least its wonderful mezédhes, seafood and juicy, fat olives. Despite depressed wages, most Greeks still eat out with friends or family at least once a week. The atmosphere is always relaxed and informal, with pretensions rare outside of the more chichi parts of Athens and certain major resorts. Drinking is traditionally meant to accompany food, though a range of bars and clubs exists.
Greeks don’t generally eat breakfast, more often opting for a mid-morning snack. This is reflected in the abysmal quality of most hotel “continental” offerings, where waxy orange squash, stewed coffee, processed cheese and meats, plus pre-packaged butter, honey and jam (confusingly called marmeládha), are the rule at all but the top establishments. There might be some fresh fruit, decent yoghurt and pure honey, if you are lucky. The only egg-and-bacon kinds of places are in resorts where foreigners congregate, or where there are returned North American- or Australian-Greeks. Such outlets can often be good value (€4–7 for the works, including coffee), especially if there’s competition.
Picnic ingredients are easily available at supermarkets, bakeries and greengrocers; sampling produce like cheese or olives is acceptable. Standard white bread is often of minimal nutritional value and inedible within a day of purchase, although rarer brown varieties such as olikís (wholemeal), sikalísio (rye bread) or oktásporo (multi-grain) fare better. Olives are ubiquitous, with the Kalamáta and Ámfissa varieties usually surpassing most local picks in quality.
Honey is the ideal topping for the famous local yoghurt, which is widely available in bulk. Sheep-milk yoghurt (próvio) is richer and sweeter than the more common cow’s-milk. Feta cheese is found everywhere, often with a dozen varieties to choose from, made from goat’s, sheep’s or cow’s milk in varying proportions. Harder graviéra is the second most popular cheese.
Greece imports very little produce from abroad, aside from bananas, the odd pineapple and a few mangoes. Fruit is relatively expensive and available mainly by season, though in more cosmopolitan spots one can find such things as avocados for much of the year. Reliable picnic fruits include cherries (June–July); krystália, small, heavenly green pears (Sept–Nov); vaniliés, orange- or red-fleshed plums (July–Oct); and kiwi (Oct–May). Less portable, but succulent, are figs, whose main season is August and September. Salad vegetables are more reasonably priced; besides the famous, enormous tomatoes (June–Sept), there’s a bewildering variety of cool-season greens, including rocket, dill, enormous spring onions and lettuces.
Greek cuisine and restaurants are usually straightforward and still largely affordable – typically €12–20 per person for a substantial meal with house wine. Even when preparation is basic, raw materials are usually wholesome and fresh. The best strategy is to go where Greeks go, often less obvious backstreet places that might not look much from outside but deliver the real deal. The two most common types of restaurant are the estiatório and the taverna. Distinctions are slight, though the former is more commonly found in large towns and emphasize the more complicated, oven-baked casserole dishes termed mayireftá (literally, “cooked”).
As one might expect, the identikit tavernas at resorts dominated by foreigners tend to make less effort, bashing out speedily grilled meat with pre-cut chips and rice containing the odd pea. You should beware of overcharging and bill-padding at such establishments too. In towns, growing numbers of pretentious “koultouriárika” restaurants boast fancy decor and Greek nouvelle (or fusion) cuisine with speciality wine lists, while producing little of substance.
Greeks generally eat very late in the evening, rarely venturing out until after 9pm and often arriving at midnight or later. Consequently, most restaurants operate flexible hours, varying according to the level of custom, and thus the opening times given throughout the listings should be viewed as approximate at best.
With their long hours and tiny profit margins, estiatória (sometimes known as inomayiría, “wine-and-cook-houses”) are, alas, a vanishing breed. An estiatório will generally feature a variety of mayireftá such as moussaka, macaroni pie, meat or game stews, stuffed tomatoes or peppers, the oily vegetable casseroles called ladherá, and oven-baked meat and fish. Usually you point at the steam trays to choose these dishes. Batches are cooked in the morning and then left to stand, which is why the food is often lukewarm; most such dishes are in fact enhanced by being allowed to steep in their own juice.
Tavernas range from the glitzy and fashionable to rough-and-ready beachside ones with seating under a reed canopy. Really primitive ones have a very limited (often unwritten) menu, but the more elaborate will offer some of the main mayireftá dishes mentioned above, as well as standard taverna fare: mezédhes (hors d’oeuvres) or orektiká (appetizers) and tís óras (meat and fish, fried or grilled to order). Psistariés (grill-houses) serve spit-roasted lamb, pork, goat, chicken or kokorétsi (grilled offal roulade). They will usually have a limited selection of mezédhes and salads (salátes), but no mayireftá. In rural areas, roadside psistariés are often called exohiká kéndra.
The most common mezédhes are tzatzíki (yoghurt, garlic and cucumber dip), melitzanosaláta (aubergine/eggplant dip), fried courgette/zucchini or aubergine/eggplant slices, yígandes (white haricot beans in hot tomato sauce), tyropitákia or spanakopitákia (small cheese or spinach pies), revythókeftedhes (chickpea patties similar to falafel), octopus salad and mavromátika (black-eyed peas).
Among meats, souvláki and chops are reliable choices; pork is usually better and cheaper than veal, especially as pansétta (spare ribs). The best souvláki, not always available, is lamb; more commonly encountered are rib chops (païdhákia); lamb roasted in tin foil (exohikó) is another favourite. Keftédhes (breadcrumbed meatballs), biftékia (pure-meat patties) and the spicy, coarse-grain sausages called loukánika are cheap and good. Chicken is widely available but typically battery-farmed. Other dishes worth trying are stewed goat (gídha vrastí) or baked goat (katsíki stó foúrno) – goat in general is typically free-range and organic.
Seafood can be one of the highlights of a trip to Greece, though there are some tips to bear in mind. When ordering, the standard procedure is to go to the glass cooler and pick your specimen, then have it weighed (uncleaned) in your presence. Overcharging, especially where a printed menu is absent, is not uncommon; have weight and price confirmed clearly. Taverna owners often comply only minimally with the requirement to indicate when seafood is frozen – look for the abbreviation “kat”, “k” or just an asterisk on the Greek-language side of the menu. If the price, almost invariably quoted by the kilo, seems too good to be true, it’s almost certainly farmed. The choicest varieties, such as red mullet, tsipoúra (gilt-head bream), seabass or fangrí (common bream), will be expensive if wild – €45–70 per kilo. Less esteemed species tend to cost €20–35 per kilo but are usually quoted at €6–9 per portion.
Fish caught in the summer months tend to be smaller and drier, and so are served with ladholémono (oil and lemon) sauce. An inexpensive May–June treat is fresh, grilled or fried bakaliáros (hake), the classic UK fish-and-chip shop species. Gávros (anchovy), atherína (sand smelts) and sardhélles (sardines) are late-summer fixtures, at their best in the northeast Aegean. Koliós (mackerel) is excellent either grilled or baked in sauce. Especially in autumn you may find psarósoupa (fish soup) or kakaviá (bouillabaisse).
Cheaper seafood (thalassiná) such as fried baby squid (usually frozen); thrápsalo (large, grillable deep-water squid) and octopus are summer staples; often mussels, cockles and small prawns will also be offered at reasonable sums (€20–30 per kilo).
All tavernas will offer you a choice of bottled wines, and most have their own house variety: kept in barrels, sold in bulk (varelísio or hýma) by the quarter-, half- or full litre, and served in glass flagons or brightly coloured tin “monkey-cups”. Per-litre prices depend on locale and quality, ranging from €4 (Thessaly, Skýros) to €10–11 (Santoríni, Rhodes). Non-resinated wine is almost always more than decent; some people add a dash of soda water or lemonade. Barrelled retsina – pine-resinated wine, often an acquired taste – is far less common than it used to be, though you will find bottled brands everywhere: Yeoryiadhi from Thessaloníki, Liokri from Ahaïa and Malamatina from central Greece are all quaffable.
Among bottled wines available nationwide, Cambas Attikos, Zítsa and Rhodian CAIR products are good, inexpensive whites, while Boutari Naoussa and Kourtakis Apelia are decent, mid-range reds. For a better but still moderately priced red, choose either Boutari or Tsantali Merlot, or Averof Katoï from Epirus.
Travelling around wine-producing islands such as Límnos, Lésvos, Santoríni, Kefaloniá, Náxos, Ikaría, Rhodes and Crete you will also have the chance to sample local bottlings. Curiously, island red wines are almost uniformly mediocre, so you are better off ordering mainland varieties from Carras on Halkidhikí, and various spots in the Peloponnese and Thessaly. Particularly notable vintages are mentioned throughout the guide.
Other premium microwineries on the mainland whose products have long been fashionable, in both red and white, include the overrated Hatzimihali (central Greece), the outstanding Dhiamandakou (near Náoussa, red and white), Athanasiadhi (central Greece), Skouras (Argolid) and the two rival Lazaridhi vintners (Dhráma, east Macedonia), especially their superb Merlots. For any of these you can expect to pay €10–16 per bottle in a shop, double that at a taverna. The best available current guide to the emerging Greek domaines and vintners is Konstantinos Lazarakis’ The Wines of Greece.
Finally, CAIR on Rhodes makes “champagne” (“naturally sparkling wine fermented en bouteille”, says the label), in both brut and demi-sec versions. It’s not Moët & Chandon quality by any means, but at about €6 per bottle, nobody’s complaining.
A venerable institution, under attack from the onslaught of mass global culture, is the kafenío, still found in every Greek town but dying out in many resorts. In greater abundance, you’ll encounter patisseries (zaharoplastía), swish modern cafeterias and trendy bars.
The kafenío (plural kafenía) is the traditional Greek coffee-house. Although its main business is “Greek” (Middle Eastern) coffee – prepared unsweetened (skétos or pikrós), medium (métrios) or sweet (glykós) – it also serves instant coffee, ouzo, brandy, beer, sage-based tea known as tsáï vounoú, soft drinks and juices. Some kafenía close at siesta time, but many remain open from early in the morning until late at night. The chief summer socializing time for a pre-prandial ouzo is 6–8pm, immediately after the afternoon nap.
Cafeterias are the province of fancier varieties of coffee and kafés frappé, iced instant coffee with sugar and (optionally) condensed milk – uniquely Greek despite its French name. Like Greek coffee, it is always accompanied by a glass of water. Freddoccino is a newer, cappuccino-based alternative to the traditional cold frappé. “Nes”(café) is the generic term for all instant coffee, regardless of brand. Thankfully, almost all cafeterias now offer a range of foreign-style coffees – filter, dubbed fíltros or gallikós (French); cappuccino; and espresso – at overseas prices. Alcohol is also served and many establishments morph into lively bars late at night.
Ouzería (called tsipourádhika in Vólos, Thessaloníki and other major centres of the north mainland), found mainly in select neighbourhoods of larger islands and towns, specialize in ouzo and mezédhes. In some places you also find mezedhopolía, a bigger, more elaborate kind of ouzerí. These places are well worth trying for the marvellous variety of mezédhes they serve. In effect, several plates of mezédhes plus drinks will substitute for a more involved meal at a taverna, though it works out more expensive if you have a healthy appetite. Faced with an often bewilderingly varied menu, you might opt for a pikilía (assortment) available in several sizes, the most expensive one usually emphasizing seafood.
Ouzo is served by the glass, to which you can add water from the accompanying glass or ice to taste. The next measure up is a karafáki – a 200ml vial, the favourite means of delivery for tsípouro. Once, every ouzo was automatically accompanied by a small plate of mezédhes on the house: cheese, cucumber, tomato, a few olives, sometimes octopus or a couple of small fish. Nowadays “ouzomezés” is a separate, pricier option. Often, however, this is “off-menu” but if you order a karafáki you will automatically be served a selection of snacks.
The zaharoplastío, a cross between café and patisserie, serves coffee, a limited range of alcohol, yoghurt with honey and sticky cakes. The better establishments offer an amazing variety of pastries, cream-and-chocolate confections, honey-soaked Greco–Turkish sweets like baklavás, kataïfi (honey-drenched “shredded wheat”), loukoumádhes (deep-fried batter puffs dusted with cinnamon and dipped in syrup), galaktoboúreko (custard pie) and so on. For more dairy-based products, seek out a galaktopolío, where you’ll often find ryzógalo (rice pudding), kréma (custard) and locally made yiaoúrti (yoghurt). Both zaharoplastía and galaktopolía are more family-oriented places than a kafenío. Traditional specialities include “spoon sweets” or glyká koutalioú (syrupy preserves of quince, grape, fig, citrus fruit or cherry) .
Ice cream, sold principally at the parlours which have swept across Greece (Dhodhoni is the posh home-grown competition to Haägen-Dazs), can be very good and almost indistinguishable from Italian prototypes. A scoop (baláki) costs €1.20–1.50; you’ll be asked if you want it in a cup (kypelláki) or a cone (konáki), and whether you want toppings like santiyí (whipped cream) or nuts.
Bars (barákia) are ubiquitous across Greece, ranging from clones of Spanish bodegas to musical beachside bars more active by day than at night. At their most sophisticated, however, they are well-executed theme venues in ex-industrial premises or Neoclassical houses, with both Greek and international soundtracks. Most Greek bars have a half-life of about a year; the best way to find current hot spots, especially if they’re more club than bar, is to look out for posters advertising bar-hosted events in the neighbourhood.
Shots and cocktails are invariably expensive at €5–8, except during well-advertised happy hours: beer in a bar will cost €4–5, up to €12 for imports in trendier parts of Athens. Beers are mostly foreign lagers made locally under licence at just a handful of breweries on the central mainland. Local brands include the palatable Fix from Athens, milder Mythos and Veryina from Komotiní. Athens also has a microbrewery, Craft: they produce lager in three grades (blonde, “smoked” and black), as well as a red ale, distribution of which is on the rise. Genuinely imported German beers, such as Bitburger, Fisher and Warsteiner (plus a few British and Irish ones), are found in Athens and at busier resorts.
The ubiquitous Loutraki mineral water is not esteemed by the Greeks themselves, who prefer various brands from Crete and Epirus. In many tavernas there has been a backlash against plastic bottles, and you can now get mineral water in glass bottles. Souroti, Epsa and Sariza are the principal labels of naturally sparkling (aerioúho in Greek) water, in small bottles. Note that despite variable quality in taste tap water is essentially safe all over Greece though persuading a restaurant to provide it can be difficult.
Traditional hot snacks are still easy to come by, although they are being elbowed aside by Western fast food at both international and nationwide Greek chains such as Goody’s (burgers, pasta and salad bar), Everest, Grigoris and Theios Vanias (baked pastries and baguette sandwiches), and various pizzerias. Still, thousands of kebab shops (souvladzídhika) churn out souvlákia, either as small shish on wooden sticks or as yíros – doner kebab with garnish in pítta bread. Other snacks include cheese pies (tyrópites), spinach pies (spanokópites) and, less commonly, minced meat pies (kreatópites); these are found either at the baker’s or some of the aforementioned chains.
Since the idea of courses is foreign to Greek cuisine, starters, main dishes and salads often arrive together unless you request otherwise. The best strategy is to order a selection of mezédhes and salads to share, in local fashion. Waiters encourage you to take horiátiki saláta – the so-called Greek salad, including feta cheese – because it is the most expensive. If you only want tomato and cucumber, ask for angourodomáta. Cabbage-carrot (láhano-karóto) and lettuce (maroúli) are the typical cool-season salads.
Bread is generally counted as part of the “cover” charge (€0.50–1 per person), so you have to pay for it even if you don’t eat any. Though menu prices are supposedly inclusive of all taxes and service, an extra tip of around five percent or simple rounding up of the bill is in order.
Vegetarians will find scarcely any dedicated meat-free restaurants at all in Greece. That is not to say that they cannot enjoy excellent food, however. The best solution in tavernas or ouzerís is to assemble a meal from vegetarian mezédhes and salads and, in estiatória especially, keep an eye open for the delicious ladhera, vegetables baked in various sauces.
Ouzo and the similar tsípouro (north mainland) and tsikoudhiá (Crete) are simple spirits of up to 48 percent alcohol, distilled from the grape-mash residue of wine-making. The former is always flavoured with anise, the latter two may be unadulterated or also have a touch of anise, cinnamon, pear essence or fennel. There are nearly thirty brands of ouzo or tsípouro, with the best reckoned to be from Lésvos and Sámos islands, or Zítsa and Týrnavos on the mainland. Note that ouzo has the peculiar ability to bring back its effect when you drink water the morning after, so make sure you don’t plan to do anything important (not least driving) the next day.
For more top tips in travelling in Greece, head here.