Considering Athens’ position as a top tourist destination, it may come as a surprise that it is only recently that local museums have decided to up their game when it comes to their dining offerings. Worldwide, a good restaurant and café are now considered part of the whole museum-going experience, but it took a little time for Athenian museums to catch on to that, though catch on they have.
The impressive Acropolis Museum, which opened to much fanfare in 2009, houses 4,000 artifacts from the Acropolis spread out over 14,000 square meters. Designed by famous French-Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, the museum is imposing and futuristic – all glass and concrete – and it has a restaurant to match. Situated on the second floor, the restaurant is a vast, minimalist affair with black tables and décor in shades of gray and black, down to the uniforms of the waitstaff. A concrete, partially shaded triangular terrace where diners can sit outside when the weather permits has one of the best views of Athens: the Parthenon is straight ahead, silhouetted against the sky, while the old buildings of the Makrygianni neighborhood to the left and right create a wonderful setting.
The museum’s restaurant – where everything from coffee to full meals is served with silver-plated cutlery – has gone through a number of ups and downs due to several changes in management since it first opened, but it is currently experiencing a very good culinary period. Considering the location, the view and the service, prices are more than reasonable: starters are from €5.50-7 and mains are €10-12. The venue offers a variety of options catering to every need, including a diverse kids’ menu featuring sandwiches, a homemade cheese pie and spaghetti Bolognese. But most interestingly, the menu emphasizes appealing regional dishes that flirt with what we like to call “creative Greek cooking.” Even the most traditional foods are given a different spin – fried calamari, for instance, is served along with an aromatic eggplant salad.
The venue’s atypical approach comes through in the most unlikely of Greek classics, such as the gyros. Instead of being spit-roasted and sliced vertically, the pork gyro meat is baked in the oven and served with a strong yogurt dip, thinly sliced onion and roasted tomato. The dish comes out mushy, a bit messy and looking like a bizarre, uneven mountain of meat, but it tastes great, with a delicious peppery flavor. Equally good are the salads, which include one that combines spinach, rocket (arugula), lightly salted and aromatic croutons, and siglino, a traditional home-cured pork from Mani in the Peloponnesus. To make siglino, pork is cured and smoked before being steeped in wine, and then preserved in jars with pork fat and orange peel, leading to a tangy, strong flavor that is complemented perfectly in this salad by an orangey dressing.
On Friday nights, the restaurant stays open until midnight and offers additional gourmet-style dishes from different regions of Greece. But we’re even more excited about the weekend breakfast menu – offered until noon on Saturdays and Sundays – which is noteworthy because it focuses on interesting traditional items that you are not likely to find anywhere else in the city. (Greeks are not exactly a nation of breakfast-eaters, and so most Athens venues offer continental or English-style breakfast, if anything at all.) The olives from Kalamata with small rusks (think big croutons) from Kythera, for example, are a traditional rustic dish enjoyed in villages all over Greece, as is the strapatsada, or scrambled eggs, with sweet gruyere from the island of Naxos. Alongside these dishes are Western classics with a Greek twist, such as pancakes with Greek molasses and tahini.
Not far away in the posh neighborhood of Kolonaki, the Benaki Museum is perhaps one of Athens’ most interesting museums. Housed in a beautiful neoclassical mansion, the Benaki was the first private museum to open in the country, and it works like a crash course in Greek history, with artifacts ranging from antiquity to the Byzantine period to modern Greece. Its restaurant, which has a breathtaking view of the National Gardens of Greece and wooded Ardittos Hill, is a rather old-fashioned Athenian affair, popular with the ladies-who-lunch set (even in crisis-stricken Greece, there are still a few left) and other sophisticated locals – at our last visit, a nearby table was taken up by a group of retired businessmen in blazers whom we overheard discussing Winston Churchill.
There are at least six main courses on offer every day, ranging from typical Greek dishes like stuffed tomatoes and green peppers, to the more international, such as a sea bass fillet with citrus sauce and lemon blossom. Many people come here for the dolmadakia from the island of Kasos; these tiny, oddly shaped stuffed vine leaves are accompanied by a great strained yogurt dip. Though good, the menu items are on the expensive side (€12-16), but what the venue lacks in value for money is made up for by the atmosphere. The walls, as well as the placemats, are adorned with works by Konstantin Kakanias, a Los Angeles-based Greek artist who is well known for his camp, stylish illustrations. In the summer, the old- fashioned terrace is classic Athens, with enormous potted plants and a glorious view.
Two blocks down, the Museum of Cycladic Art – an old, neoclassical building that houses an excellent collection of Cycladic, Ancient Greek and Cypriot art – has a sleek little café, the Aethrion at Cycladic, in a beautiful atrium filled with greenery and plants. Meanwhile, the National Archeological Museum, perhaps Greece’s most important museum at least in terms of artifacts, has two cafés, one located in an open-air courtyard inside the museum, where ancient statues peek out from among the trees. Though the food (mostly basics like sandwiches and coffee) is not on par with that at the Acropolis or Benaki museums, the courtyard’s silent statues, their beauty still intact after all these centuries, make for exceptionally pleasant dining partners.