In early September and October, Athens – just like many other cities around the world – sees an influx of young people leaving home for the first time to spend the next four years in intellectual pursuits and drinking coffee. Few among them are as concerned with what they’re eating as they are with other, seemingly more important matters, and so Greek student life is usually associated with deliveries of souvlaki, pizza and other minor domestic disasters. But for young people eating on the cheap, fast food doesn’t have to be the only option; local restaurants often offer student specials this time of year.
The mezedopoleio, as we’ve written about previously, is similar to the Spanish tapas bar: Small plates of mezes are passed around for everyone to share and are often accompanied by homemade ouzo, tsipouro and wine on draft. Because of their cheap and cheerful ethos and their sometimes live Greek music, the mezedopoleio is a hallmark of Greek student life. Of the standbys, most are not known for good cooking: Their pies and dips usually come straight from the supermarket freezer. There are exceptions, of course – such as the outdoorsy classic Dexameni or the super-trendy Mavro Provato. We know of two more that use regional Greek cuisine as an inspiration to serve something fresh and authentic.
The first is in the up-and-coming neighborhood of Petralona. An old working-class suburb, Petralona has become a nightlife destination with bars and restaurants on every corner. Aster, named for the flower, is the best of the bunch. Ideally placed near Zefyros, one of Athens’ best outdoor cinemas, this eatery specializes in Cretan delicacies. The interior, with its mosaic tiled floors and Formica tables, conjures up the 1960s, and the mismatched tableware looks like it was cobbled together from various grandmothers’ tea sets.
We’re more interested in what’s served on that tableware, of course. All the dishes range between €2 and €5. One of our favorites is the asteropitakia (many menu items have been given names that are a play on the word “aster”), small phyllo pockets stuffed with mizithra cheese and honey. We also love the vinegary sausage, a homemade delicacy that really stands out from the rest. We ordered the freshly cut potatoes with xigalo, a soft, tangy goat’s or sheep’s milk cheese from the Siteia region of Crete. Although xigalo has been recognized with a protected designation of origin, it’s relatively unknown in Athens.
Another excellent mezedopoleio sits in under-the-radar Dafni, a mostly residential area in the southern suburbs of Athens that has become more popular because of its metro station. Sto Dafni has got the trappings of a typical Athenian eatery: mosaic floors, loud Greek music on the speakers (they swore to us that they sometimes play punk rock) and simple wooden chairs and tables. A favorite hangout among locals, the place is full even on weekdays.
The menu comes in an old-fashioned student handbook, and the food takes up only two pages. The dishes, which have a Cephalonian influence, are simple yet delicious. The Ionian island of Cephalonia (one of the owners hails from there) is famous for its cooking, particularly for its ingenious pies – we especially love the octopus pie and cod pie – and soft, buttery feta. On that island, feta trimmings (usually what’s left in the bottom of the barrel where feta has been stored) are mixed with olive oil and thyme to make a spread called pretza. Sto Dafni’s traditional riganada (rigani is “oregano” in Greek) combines toasted bread that has been soaked in water and olive oil with plenty of oregano, pretza and a topping of tomato. We also love the amazing spicy sausage with dried figs cooked in a sweet, tangy sauce of grape molasses. While the menu also offers dishes like patatas bravas and fried cheese, it’s those Cephalonia-inspired dishes that really impress.
This article was originally published on October 3, 2014.