The so-called “ethnic” cuisines – from Middle Eastern and Indian to Chinese and Japanese – came to Athens relatively late, in the mid-1980s, and were a costly affair. Athens’ first “exotic” restaurant, the Kona Kai in the Athens Ledra Mariott Hotel, opened its doors in 1984 and was one of the city’s most fashionable, high-class restaurants for years, serving Polynesian cuisine. It remains untouched, at least in terms of décor: the venue is a glorious extravaganza of bamboo and waterfalls!
Indian cuisine was treated in pretty much the same manner: in the ’90s, big, glamorous and expensive Indian restaurants opened in Athens’ well-off southern and northern suburbs. Restaurants like the Jaipur Palace, which recently moved to the suburb of Kifisia, were a product of that generation. [Editor’s note: Jaipur Palace has closed.] Littered with Indian paraphernalia and wooden bric-a-brac, they served food that, in the Greece of the ’90s, was deemed exotic. Many people are still ardent fans of Jaipur Palace’s tandoori dishes, and the old exotic atmosphere remains there. The food is not as spicy as Indian dishes in the United Kingdom or the United States, though, so if you end up going, ask for extra spice. But Jaipur Palace is not a cheap option; one can expect to pay around €30-40 per person.
In the first decade of the new millennium, things changed in terms of Indian cooking, as the first Indian and Pakistani immigrants arrived in downtown Athens and affordable restaurants offering the cuisine of the Subcontinent finally appeared in the city.
The best places for Indian food in Athens are quite modest. One of them, Indian Masala, is located downtown, on Ermou Street near the Monastiraki metro station. It is quite a lively place, with terracotta-colored walls and a small but empty courtyard; through the windows one can see a beautiful olive tree against an ochre backdrop. Most customers are young professionals and the place gets quite busy on the weekends. The chicken tikka masala is a favorite because it is very sweet and smooth, but the chicken jalfrezi – a spicy curry with onion sauce and chopped green pepper – is also worth ordering. There is a good vegetarian option in the dal tarka, yellow dried split peas with cumin and other spices. We also love the naan breads, especially the peshwari naan, which is stuffed with pistachio nuts.
For something a little more fashionable, Bollywood is the slightly more expensive sister restaurant to Indian Masala. A trendy, tapas-style venue in the hip Gazi area with a DJ spinning Indian fusion tunes, Bollywood Restaurant lives up to its glamorous name.
Our personal favorite is To Indiko tou Barba George (Barba George’s Indian), in the Exarchia area, a scruffy neighborhood popular with Athens’ politically active set. This tiny take-away place has a few wooden tables out in Mesologiou Street, which has been pedestrianized and is full of busy cafés and bars. The once-miniature restaurant has expanded into a small room right next door to be able to accommodate the increasing number of people who prefer sitting down to taking away their food. The walls are painted in bright colors and adorned with pictures of Bollywood actresses.
Despite the efforts at décor, though, do not expect atmosphere at Barba George – this is a place to eat cheap Indian food. The samosas are spicy and crispy and both the tikka masala and the madras are fresh and lovely. Their not-so-Indian novelty is a kind of döner, which they wrap up in naan bread as a quick take-away. The many students in the area, too young to know that what they are eating was once considered an exotic luxury, swear by it.