The Athens food scene has been booming over the past few years. The increasing number of tourists, the growing optimism of investors who see a financial opportunity in the food industry, as well as an ever-growing pool of talented new chefs, cooks, baristas and bartenders have all contributed to this creative regeneration – not just of the food scene but of the city itself.
There is a deeper interest in high-quality ingredients, which is why we’re seeing more and more farm-to-table and organic restaurants. Food trends are also making an inroad, hence the growing number of street food and vegan options – some of which are so good that they really deserve an award. And then there are the ethnic and fusion restaurants that have been sprouting up nonstop and thriving. So many options – most of them very reasonably priced for international standards – in a city that loves eating, drinking and all the small (and big) pleasures in life.
Yes, I am a meat lover, but only when the meat is of excellent quality, like at Farma Bralou in Kolonaki. The restaurant sources all its meat from the magnificent 350-acre organic farm of the same name in Fthiotida, a beautiful mountainous region in central Greece about 230 km north of Athens.
The restaurant first opened about two years ago and is now run by the young and talented head chef Yiannis Liokas. Originally from Epirus, another craggy region of Greece, Yiannis uses meat and other goodies produced at the farm to prepare his self-described “mountain cuisine.” All the dishes I’ve tasted from their daily menu are wonderful and very reasonably priced for what you get, like the meat pie with ground mutton and caramelized onions wrapped in their crispy handmade phyllo.
I always make sure to leave some space for a main, like the magnificent black pig served with fava (creamed yellow split peas) on the side, atop a green apple gel and paired with a smoked eel sauce. Alternatively, if I feel like splashing out, I order one of their incredible cuts of meat at the butcher’s counter – this definitely comes with a higher price tag, though, depending on the cut. Pair you meal with a wine from their excellent wine list and end it with the kantaifi, a vermicelli-like pastry stuffed with chopped nuts, served with sheep’s milk yogurt mousse and caramelized walnuts. It’s the perfect spot for a celebratory meal.
Ta Karamanlidika Tou Fani
This little deli located near the Athens Central Food Market is one of my favorite places to eat in Athens. It’s a great spot to pick up top-notch food products, like artisanal cheeses and cold cuts from all over Greece, and other delightful delicacies including olive oil, wine and honey. But I make sure to do my shopping around lunch or dinnertime, so that I can also sit down for a meal. Every single dish on their relatively small menu is absolutely delicious and based on the products they sell. Plus, the portions are large, so I always try to go hungry and with plenty of time to enjoy the surroundings (the restaurant is housed in a beautiful neoclassical building and hides a narrow and cozy outdoor space in the back).
Birdman, a new entry in the recently gentrified area bordering Plaka and Syntagma, opened this past summer and immediately became the talk of the town. This instant success is no surprise as the man behind the project is Aris Vezenes, one of the most successful chefs in Athens. Owner of the famous Vezene restaurant, his second venture is a Japanese pub specializing in yakitori sticks and other Japanese-inspired finger foods. It’s not exactly a place to go for dinner, as Aris explained on our last visit. “This is a place to go after work – around 6 p.m. – or the place for a pit stop before dinner to grab a drink and enjoy a bite or two,” he said.
I love the venue’s long oak wood bar, which runs from one end of the narrow space to the other. This is where most people sit, nursing a Japanese beer or one of their wonderful cocktails while listening to to an excellent and eclectic mix of music. Personally, I usually go for their classic Negroni or the bittersweet Caprano Antica Formula, an aperitif made with sweet vermouth that has notes of candied cherries and a fruity finish.
As far as the food is concerned, everything I’ve tasted has been an all-out pleasure for my palate. Like, for instance, the Birdy Nam Nam Tempura Chicken, a fried chicken breast with umeboshi (Japanese pickled plums), and the exquisite Wagyu Beef Nigiris, one of which is made with rib eye, the other with chateaubriand, and the third with chuck flap. In addition, the 13 different types of yakitori, the Tsukune (chicken meatballs), the Ondori Negima (rooster with spiced lemon chutney) and the Riburo-Su (rib eye with pico de gallo) are all delicious. (I told you I’m a meat lover.)
The menu is short with a focus on meat and presented with a sense of humor that I like. Just be careful not to order too much or else your pre-dinner snack will cost more than the main meal.
Kokkion Ice Cream
Another recent entry in the Athens food scene is this little ice cream shop, which opened a few months ago on the hipsterized Protogenous Street in Psyrri. Their handmade gelato is addictive, and all the various flavors (many of which are vegan) are so fresh and creative.
When I’m craving something traditional, I go for kaimaki, a buffalo-milk ice cream spiced up with mastiha (a resin collected from a special kind of tree, the mastiha tree, that grows on Chios island) and salepi (wild orchid root), which is also sold readily packed and mixed with sour cherry spoon sweet. But if I’m looking for something more refreshing, I get the tangerine and ginger sorbet, or their amazing coconut sorbet with steamed chocolate cookie chunks mixed inside – both are heavenly.
– Carolina Doriti
Although my lunch at Nolan took place at the very start of 2018, it still remains one of the most vivid eating experiences of the year. I had heard friends rave about this Japanese-Greek fusion restaurant in the center of Athens so was thrilled to be invited, and even more thrilled that it more than lived up to expectations.
The place itself is small and cozy despite being somewhat austere and almost entirely walled by glass; apart from a few plants, there is nothing to distract you from the menu. Luckily there were five of us so we gave free range to our curiosity. Intrigued by combinations like soba noodles with smoked salmon and tahini, steamed buns with pork cheeks, savory curd with greens and siglino (smoked pork), we also ordered the more straight-forward-sounding NCB (Nolan cod burger) and NFC (Nolan fried chicken). They were all delectable, wonderfully realized minglings of Asian and Mediterranean tastes, but the pièce de resistance was the humble, rather unappetizing sounding “burnt cabbage with cauliflower and aged white cheese from Naxos.” Our hostess insisted; she had been there before. And she was right: it was totally original and totally scrumptious. Luckily there was a basket of bread on our table for mopping up juices. The wines were first class, the desserts too, but I cannot summon them up. All I know is we did not leave a molecule of anything on any of the plates.
Going to this attractive ouzeri in Neo Psychiko is always an adventure because you never know where the menu is going to take you gastronomically. For the past few years, the owners have been focusing on a different Greek region every four or five months. I’ve feasted on specialties from Constantinople, Crete, the Northeast Aegean and the Cyclades, but imagine my surprise and delight when Alexandros Giolmas told me that, starting in November, his theme would be the Ionian islands and that he wanted to use my cookbook, Prospero’s Kitchen, as a source. I was curious to see how recipes I make myself would change in the hands of a professional cook.
Well, they were superb. With a complimentary thimbleful of tsipouro, Alexandros gave us a wedge of exquisite artisanal cheese from Serifos (nowhere near the Ionian islands) and brought out a tray of mezedes that included lentils from Lefkada with smoked eel, Corfiot Pita Zorka (a crustless pie containing myzithra cheese, eggs, noumboulo, or smoked pork fillet, and pecorino cheese) and Zakynthos eggplant smothered with garlic. This last one happens to be my favorite recipe in the book, and Hohlidaki’s version had us rolling our eyes. Even a companion who professes to hate garlic was lapping it up. We finished off with a meat pie from Kefalonia and a dessert from the other side of the Aegean that combined pistachios, kantaifi and mastiha ice cream. I will have to go back several times before the menu changes again to taste the Salsa from Zakynthos, the Sofrito from Corfu, the Savoro from Ithaki and other familiar dishes plus several I had not heard of.
O Giorgis tou Vithou (George of the Deep)
This fish taverna in Lykovrysi has become one of our favorite lunch places. It’s not much to look at, just another glass-fronted eatery located on a busy street with no landmarks. In fact, you might think it’s a fish market, and that’s a great part of its appeal. We usually walk past the tables straight to the marble counters on which all kinds of fish and seafood sit atop mounds of crushed ice. The spectacle is so tantalizing, the choice so challenging that we sometimes spend up to ten minutes deciding on our “catch” before we even bag a table. Whole fish, from magnificent bream to red barbounia (mullet) and octopus, fill the left counter, while the right one shows off the shrimp, mussels, the squid family and the little fish that are best served fried. We finally place our order with the patient waiter and take a seat.
While our selection is being cooked to order perfectly, we nibble on ready appetizers, like marinated anchovies, fava, greens, a platter of boiled veg, spicy whipped cheese, skordalia (garlic sauce) and sip our pretty good house wine. The no-frills atmosphere is comfortingly casual, the staff invariably cheerful, and we have never had a dish that was not impeccable. You’re not limited to fried and grilled; other possibilities include a rich fish soup, steamed mussels, and shrimp or mussels saganaki (with tomato sauce). We like the place so much we have even eaten here two days in row.
– Diana Farr Louis
Chicken Tikka at Mirch
When Mirch opened on Ermou Street a few years ago, its Indian souvlaki – a homemade naan bread freshly baked in the tandoori oven, filled with juicy chicken tikka pieces, yogurt sauce and lettuce – quickly became a sensation. It was (and still is) absolutely delicious, albeit somewhat massive for one person. My favorite is actually the chicken tikka itself: tender chicken thigh pieces marinated in yogurt and spices, baked in the tandoori oven and served with a side of yogurt sauce and a sprinkle of fresh coriander. Although a takeaway place, Mirch is still a nice place to sit and relax, especially after strolling around the Monastiraki market. It also offers an impressive selection of bottled beers to go with your food.
Vegan Souvlaki at Cookoomela Grill
Even if you aren’t vegan, it’s worth trying the meat-free version of the iconic Greek street food made from mushroom gyros and avocado “tzatziki” at Cookoomela Grill. They use mostly organic ingredients, many of which are made by small Greek producers, and apart from the mustard and the pita, everything else is handmade in the shop. This attention to quality explains the long lines! I like to sit at the adjacent café for some people-watching while waiting for my order, and then go for a stroll around the bohemian neighborhood of Exarchia with my vegan souvlaki in hand.
Sushi Omakase at Sushimou
Sushi has become very common in Athens nowadays, but Sushimou, the tiny 12-seater restaurant near Syntagma Square, differentiates itself by offering a sushi experience close to Japanese standards. Antonis Drakoularakos, the chef-owner, makes everything based on the freshest catch of the day, which means that the fish is better here than at your local sushi place: from tuna to sardines and red mullet, only the best fish from the Greek seas are transformed into sashimi and nigiri of the highest quality. Although there is a printed menu, most people order “omakase,” which means “I’ll leave it up to you.” Prices are fair for the quality of the fish and the total experience – expect to pay around 50 euros per person (I did so with no regrets). Reservations are required due to the size of the restaurant and should be made about a month in advance.
Monkfish Tail Saganaki at Psarokokkalo
There isn’t much to see in the quiet neighborhood of Melissia, but it’s worth a visit just for a meal at Psarokokkalo. I particularly love the monkfish tail saganaki made with fresh monkfish, tomato sauce and feta, a twist on the Greek classic made with shrimp. Oli, the owner, is the heart and soul of the place, and he makes sure that the fish is fresh and the clients are happy. The lively atmosphere also helps.
Baked Giant Beans at Ypovrichio
Omonoia is perhaps not your first choice of neighborhoods for opening a restaurant, but when Milen Chevernkov and Antonia Peponi were looking for an affordable place to open a mageirio – a kind of no-frills eatery serving home-style food – in 2011, they found it here, in the basement of a small stoa, or arcade, on Aiolou Street. It’s true that the arcade is a little rough around the edges and the steep stairs leading down to Ypovrichio (the name means “submarine” in English) can seem a bit dangerous, but the ramshackle structure is more charming than dingy – in fact, it’s reminiscent of an old ship. Everything is cooked with love here, and the menu changes daily, but I particularly love their baked giant beans, a simple, standard Greek dish that is rarely done well. Here the beans were meltingly tender, without being overcooked, and the sauce had just the right amount of oil.
– Johanna Dimopoulos