As we launch our Green Traveller's Guide to Athens, Clare Hargreaves picks out a selection of restaurants, cafés and markets to find the best local food and drink in the Greek Capital.
Whether you’re after a humble oregano-sprinkled souvlaki takeaway, a ‘proper’ Greek coffee in a streetside cafe, or a Michelin-starred blow-out in an elegant rooftop restaurant with Acropolis views, Athens has it all. The city’s cuisine has risen dramatically in recent years, with many chefs putting creative twists on Greek classics. Smart new galleries are also upping their game by offering first-rate food in stylish courtyard cafe-restaurants. The dramatic improvement in Greek wines has also spawned some top-class wine bars where you can taste the country’s best and pair them with artisan Greek cuisine.
Kostas, Agias Irinis Square (pictured above: Kostas preparing souvalaki)
It’s little more than a hole in the wall, but this unassuming-looking place in gorgeous Agia Irini square, is a dearly loved Athenian institution. Owner Kostas grills up tasty pork souvlaki and bifteki (hamburger) and serves them in pittas with freshly cut tomatoes and herbs. They’re doused with a splash of yoghurt and a spoonful of spicy tomato sauce for which the recipe is a tightly guarded secret. Kostas closes at 5pm or when the food runs out, so get there early to ensure you don’t miss out on one of Athens’ tastiest takeaways.
Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation Café-Restaurant
Athens seems to have a knack at producing superb cafe-restaurants in its newer art galleries. This cafe, in a tranquil courtyard garden, combines soothing decor with simple, contemporary dishes that are delivered with aplomb by the place’s enthusiastic team. Well-priced mains might be Strifoudi Cretan pasta with spinach and feta, or Ravioli filled with anthotiroscheese served with sun-dried tomato and orange pesto. There’s an all-day breakfast, including Kagianas (Scrambled eggs with grilled cherry tomatoes and feta) on toast. Leave room for the puds, especially the Kaimaki mastic ice cream with homemade rose petal jam. goulandris.gr
Little Kook Tea & Coffee Room
To call this a tea and coffee room understates its magnificence. Yes, you can get both here, but the thing you come to this place in hip Psirri for is its fantastical decor which changes regularly. As you sip, you sit inside a crazy theatre set of over-the-top props, dolls and party streamers, and cafe staff dress to fit the theme too. Recent themes have included Mary Poppins and the Circus. Visit around Hallowe’en and you’ll rub elbows with skeletons, witches and spooky black umbrellas. Kids and instagrammers will love it. And the cake’s not bad either.
Six D.O.G.S cafe
Part cocktail bar, gig space and garden, this super-trendy joint in the heart of Monastiraki calls itself an all-day all-night cultural entertainment centre. Descend the steps into its vast multi-tiered garden and you enter a magical tardis-like oasis that feels a million miles from Athens’ hectic streets. Sip cocktails and listen to live music under the trees, or snuggle inside one of its indoor spaces for something more intimate. Come here for art exhibitions, club nights, home-made pies, and much more. sixdogs.gr
By the Glass
Greek wines have come on in leaps and bounds in recent decades, and this wine bar, tucked inside the Ralli Arcade next to the Russian Orthodox church, is a gorgeous place to sample some of the country’s best. Sit outside in the glitzy arcade, or perch at the slick hand-crafted bar inside to try some of the 200-odd wines available by the glass - thanks to Coravin, the gismo that extracts wine without disturbing the cork. Pair them with delicious island-hopping delicacies to make a meal of it, guided by the expert sommelier. Fabulous. bytheglass.gr
Mono wine restaurant, Plaka
At first glance you could mistake this half-inside-half-outside eaterie for your typical Plaka taverna. There’s stuffed vine leaves, moussaka and the usual local fish on the menu. But all these Greek classics are given a creative modern twist by chef-owner Vasilis Vasileiou, and paired with some superb Greek wines. So vineleaves are stuffed with calamari and lemongrass, topped with an egg and lemon foam (rather than the usual sauce). Moussaka is filled not with the customary lamb mince but with braised oxtail, and grouper fish is cooked Tandoori style, with turmeric, dates and fennel. Different. monorestaurant.gr
The big thing in this super little deli, named after a Cretan herb used to make mountain tea, is olive oil. Not only are the oils organic and extra-virgin, and sourced direct from small family producers, but they’re proven to be high in health-giving polyphenols too. Errika, its knowledgable Cretan-born co-owner, gets you tasting oils you’ll never find in a supermarket - from Corfu-produced The Governor to Cretan Pamako (meaning ‘medicine’). Other goodies include graviera cheese sourced directly from its makers in Rethymnon in Crete, sikomaida (fig cake) from Corfu, and liqueurs from mastic sourced from Chios. malotira.gr
Kokkion Handmade Ice Cream
If you’ve not yet tried kaimaki, this tiny outlet in Monastiraki selling home-made ice cream is a good place to do so. Kaimaki, which gets its name from the word “kaymak” meaning cream, is a rich, chewy ice cream that’s made from buffalo milk and flavoured with mastic resin from trees on the island of Chios. Its chewiness comes from sahlep powder, which is ground from the roots of wild orchids. Kokkion’s flavours change with the seasons, but popular ones include bitter chocolate and passionfruit, salted caramel, and mascarpone with bergamot and grape molasses. kokkion.com
Dieters and healthy eaters look away. This attractive old-style cafeteria behind the central market has been dishing out traditional Greek loukoumadhes (dough puffs, or doughnuts) and rizogalo(rice pudding) since 1922 and judging by the queues isn’t showing any signs of losing its appeal. The loukoumadhes, made to the same recipe for nearly a century, are soaked in honey-citrus syrup and dusted in cinammon and are surprisingly addictive. Take them away or eat in, and as you do so, marvel at the decor of this wonderful building which before being a puff pantry was Athens’ first pharmacy.
Benaki Museum Cafe
It’s difficult to say which is better in this roof-top cafe, the food or the view across the National Gardens - both are superb. The must-eat is the dolmadakia kassiotika, tiny stuffed vine leaves prepared the way they are on the Dodecannese island of Kasos. For something more filling, dig into a hefty slice of home-made vegetable pie, served with leaves. The cafe is open the same hours as the museum, which means the only evening it’s open (until midnight) is Thursday. As you eat, rub shoulders with the well-heeled folk of Kolonaki, the district in which the museum stands. benaki.org
Central Markets/Varvakios Agora
If you’re the remotest bit foodie, a visit to Athens’ central food markets, is a must. Since 1886 they’ve been housed in a majestic wrought-iron market hall. If the meat alleys, with their rows of suspended animal carcases (Greeks, unlike Brits, aren’t afraid to acknowledge that when they eat meat they eat animals), prove too much for your nostrils, test your piscine knowledge in the gleaming fish area or continue to the stalls heaped with colourful fruit and veg. Stalls spill out into the surrounding streets, piled high with picturesque pyramids of spices, olives and nuts and dried herbs.
This super-popular mezedopoleio is housed in a 19th-century neo-classical mansion in Metaxourgeio, once famous for its silk factory, and in fine weather tables spill out onto the pavements and square beyond. Don’t be misled by the name: the dishes here are as Greek as you’ll get, using tip-top ingredients carefully sourced from small producers by owners Ana and Fotis. That doesn’t mean they’re not full of suprises though. So look out for octopus is cooked in red wine and served on a bed of creamed peas, artisan cheeses from all over Greece, and smoked swordfish and tuna from Kalymnos island. seycheles.gr
The name of this massively popular restaurant in Pangrati means ‘black sheep’. And whether for its food or its decor, it certainly stands out from the herd. Grab a table under the orange trees outside or in its stylish black and white interior, and enjoy beautifully-priced mezedhes made with top quality ingredients sourced from all over Greece. So there’s everything from xinomizithra cream cheese from Crete to beef sausage smoked over beech wood from Drama. Another must-eat is its Minor Asian inspired hunkar begenti, tomato-stewed beef served with a smoked aubergine puree. It’s all paired with Greek regional wines. mauroprovato.gr
Blink and you’ll miss the entrance to this tiny restaurant inside a slither-sized alley off Ayiou Dimitriou street in funky Psirri. Its white-washed walls, sky-blue shutters and outdoor seating (complete with stray cats) help you imagine you’re on a Cycladic island. The big thing here is the keftedakia - fried meatballs - crunchy on the outside, silky soft on the inside, and reputed to be the best in Athens. If you don’t fancy those, there’s omelette with pastourma ham and cheese. Given the approachable prices, it’s no suprise it has a young clientele. Get there at opening time to bag a seat.
Hurry Up Street Food van, Terpsitheas square, Piraeus
Greek foodies know Harris Bonanos from his appearances at the Athens Street Food Festival //you could put a link to it here - I wanted to include but ran out of space and info//, and then on Greek MasterChef. Now the chef has turned his hand to producing gastronomic street food from his pistachio-and-white Hurry Up vintage van in a tranquil square in the port of Piraeus. Sit at one of the large tables, or perch at a wine barrel, to enjoy his gourmet takeaways that blend Cuban, Japanese and Greek flavours. Sunday brunches are a highlight. But the must-eat at any time of day is his fluffy bao steamed buns, filled with anything from roast beef and caramelised onions to shrimps and chipotle jam. facebook.com/HurryUpStreetFood