Editor’s note: This is the second piece in our series featuring the hidden gems in some of Athens’ most touristy neighborhoods. We previously explored Psyri; it is now time to take on the holy grail of Athenian tourism: Plaka.
There’s a reason why this area of old Athens, just below the Acropolis, is the city’s most touristy neighborhood: it has a history of more than 6,000 years. There is something infinitely charming and magical about walking around Plaka under the moonlit sky with a view of the Acropolis, on pedestrianized streets that wind their way among ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine monuments, Ottoman-style houses and neoclassical villas.
Like most touristy areas, though, there is a catch: sadly, most restaurants here – including some that are even “recommended” by the big hotels – are nothing more than overpriced tourist traps selling mediocre food at high prices. Most locals avoid Plaka restaurants and they have pretty good reason to do so. But this is not to say that this beautiful neighborhood should be missed. By all means, we suggest you walk around, drink a traditional Greek coffee at Glykys, and take in the culture and all the magic that the area has to offer. And if your appetite gets the best of you, try one of the following places.
Our first choice is To Kafeneio (literally meaning “coffee place”), housed in a pink-painted neoclassical building that was built in 1836 as a private residence and has been a bar, restaurant and café since 1947. Like a number of tourist-oriented establishments, the venue was refurbished in 2003, just before the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Diners can sit outside at the marble-topped tables and mint green wooden chairs or inside in the Ottoman-style interior, with its wooden floor, carved wooden tables and antique lamps. The place has long been popular with Athenian students, who love it for its old-fashioned atmosphere.
To Kafeneio’s big wooden menu explains in honest detail what is frozen and what is fresh, so you know exactly what you are ordering – an exceptionally rare thing in this neighborhood. The flogeres – cheese and ham phyllo rolls, a rather kitschy throwback to the 1980s – were simple but delicious. The pastry was crunchy and fresh and so was the filling. The restaurant’s star dish, meatballs with “THE sauce” (as they have chosen to translate it in English), also doesn’t disappoint. Made with a 30-year-old recipe, the dish consists of meatballs bathed in a spicy, red, tomato-based sauce that has a strong flavor of curry and basil and ends up being almost sweet and sour. To Kafeneio also prides itself on its huge variety of house wines, which are very good.
Nearby Diogenes, named after the famous Cynic philosopher, is probably the best of its kind: a high-end taverna popular with tourists that serves well-made food. The location is ideal: Diogenes is in the heart of Plaka, right behind a small yet beautiful garden and the Monument of Lysicrates, a circular structure raised on a high podium built in 335 BC. The tall trees behind the monument provide lovely shade over the outside tables of the taverna. The interior resembles an Italian pasta restaurant, with garlic wreaths and sun-dried tomatoes hanging from the ochre-colored ceiling. The majority of the diners are foreign, although there are some locals who come here mainly for the atmosphere. The establishment is professionally run, operating a bit like a well-oiled machine, and is adept at serving large numbers of people (including some tour groups).
The menu is extensive and, as at most restaurants in Plaka, on the expensive side (about €11-15 for a main course, and more for fish) but the quality does not disappoint. A tasty olive bread roll with a bit of tarama (fish roe) and some olives came at the beginning – a nice touch for a starter. We ordered a large, hearty portion of dolmades, vine leaves stuffed with both rice and meat, which were filling and quite satisfying. The salads were also good; we loved the not-so-Greek arugula and parmesan salad. We suggest ordering a variety of starters and salads at Diogenes, as these generally offer better value for money than the main courses. (Also, do not be shy about asking for a carafe of tap water instead of the mineral water they will try to sell you.)
There are two other places we recommend that are just a short ways from Plaka proper and that are well worth visiting. Situated between Plaka and Syntagma Square, Paradosiako is an old-school hole in the wall, popular with both foreign visitors and locals who come here again and again for the fresh fish, the fava bean dip doused in olive oil and the moussaka. Also nearby – just slightly to the south of Plaka – is the Acropolis Museum’s restaurant, where customers can take anything from coffee to a three-course meal alongside a breathtaking view of the Acropolis. The venue specializes in regional specialties and Greek cuisine with a twist, from the peppery oven-baked gyros to a lovely lemon pie. It’s an ideal place to refuel while soaking up the surrounding history.