Gastronomy in Athens: Explore the Past, Relish the Present
Text & photos by Buzzy Gordon
Athens — home of the timeless Acropolis, and the place we were taught in school was the cradle of democracy — has for centuries been one of the cornerstones of the classical Grand Tour of Europe. Accordingly, it was one of the first cities I visited when I started backpacking around the world after college. And thereafter, it was not one of the destinations that was high on my list to return to.
Fast forward 43 years from the time of my first and only visit to the capital city of Greece. I now live in Israel, just a two-hour flight away; an open-skies policy ushering in cheap fares make Athens and the Greek islands more accessible than ever. Thus began my re-acquaintance with this neighboring country in the eastern Mediterranean, starting with attending a tourism film festival on a lesser known island in the Aegean.
This was followed by a trip to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, and the heart of the region of Macedonia — which, I was surprised to learn, actually receives more tourists annually than anywhere else in the country, Athens and the Greek isles included. (The existence of a land border for easy access from the rest of Europe has a lot to do with this statistic.) Thessaloniki has also been heralded by The Guardian as Greece’s gastronomic capital, and there I regained an appreciation for that country’s mezze — the small plates of appetizers that presage a meal throughout the Levant, from the Balkans to the Middle East.
With my appetite more than whetted, I was happy to accept a subsequent invitation to experience the gastronomic delights of Athens and the surrounding region, Attica. Since this area alone accounts for nearly a third of the entire country’s population, I was confident that the foods I would taste would be representative of the nation.
On our first evening of food exploration, our guide took us on a walking tour of Kolonaki, a cosmopolitan and upscale mixed residential and commercial neighborhood of embassies, fashion boutiques and cafés, situated near downtown’s Syntagma Square. We tarried at Yoleni’s, a sort of “one-stop shop” for connoisseurship: a bar, restaurant, retail deli, wine cellar and tasting room, as well as a venue for cooking classes and wine appreciation courses.
Yoleni’s is the fruit of a collaboration of some of Athens’ leading chefs, including Dina Nikolaou, whose restaurant in Paris is a flagship of Greek cuisine in the land of haute cuisine. Whether it is food or drink, Yoleni’s is guaranteed to pique your interest — from its mixologists crafting specialty cocktails based on Greek spirits, to its creative food menu featuring 16 savory and 5 sweet sandwiches made with traditional pita bread and named after the regions of Greece from whom they drew their inspiration. At any given time, the counters on the display cases proffer free samples of goodies, from smoked sausages to cheeses, and olives to spreads.
After our pre-dinner drinks, it was off to dinner at Ergon, on Mitropoleous Street, a main artery lined with restaurants that links Syntagma Square with the Monastiraki district. Interestingly, Ergon has much in common with Yoleni’s: both combine restaurants with retail delicatessens, and do a thriving global online business in artisanal foods. Ergon, in fact, has developed its own line of gourmet products, building a network of Greek farmers to supply the raw materials for the finished products that will be marketed under the Ergon label.
With both sidewalk and indoor seating, Ergon attracts a mixed crowd of tourists and locals. Our meal began as a Greek meal should: with plates of mezze meant to be shared and passed around. Noteworthy were the tossed salad with grated mizithra, a mild greek white cheese which is used like Parmesan; keftes, zucchini fritters served with tzaziki — thick Greek yogurt seasoned with olive oil, garlic, cucumber, salt and vinegar; and fava, a bean puree reminiscent of hummus that was topped with caramelized onion and diced sausage.
For a main course, we chose the bifteka, a juicy ground veal patty, served with twice-cooked, skin-on small potatoes (first boiled, then brushed with olive oil and rosemary and baked). We were told that the potatoes come from Cyprus, and thus we were introduced to a key facet of local gastronomy: Greeks take pride in knowing where the food they eat comes from, and in sourcing the best products from the areas known for them.
A prime example of this could be found on a sign outside — of all places — a gelateria just a few doors down from Ergon: the ice cream flavors were listed, along with the primary ingredient and its origin — e.g., lemons from Argos, raisins from Korinth, etc.
Dessert at Ergon, however, left us with no desire to top it off with ice cream from anywhere else: a thick pudding of Greek yogurt cream with caramelized sesame, fresh fruits and syrup.
The next day, at our hotel’s lavish breakfast buffet, there were examples of typical Greek foods consumed every day by locals, such as varieties of both hard and soft bagels, and the ubiquitous spanakopita — a savory pastry of a filling of spinach, feta cheese, egg and scallion baked in a flaky phyllo crust.
On the sweet side of the spectrum were jars of “spoon sweets” — chunks of fresh fruit coated in simple syrup, which Greeks like to mix with yogurt and eat with a spoon.
Even food enthusiasts cannot spend all day eating; and since it helps to work up an appetite, we set out to do some serious sightseeing. Among the highlights:
The Panathenaic Stadium, whose history dates back some 2,500 years, and remarkably is all marble — which makes for awesome viewing when illuminated at night. It is the site of the first modern Olympic games (in 1896), and the place where the Olympic torch is handed off to the games’ host countries every four years.
The National Archaeological Museum, whose most recent expansion and renovation was completed in 2004. It is one of the most important historical museums in the world, with priceless collections and statuary from Egyptian and Greek antiquity.
Lunchtime was devoted to discovering street food, and focused on a narrow alley on the edge of the Monastiraki district: Agias Irinis Street, which morphs into Athinaidos Street.
Hoocut True Pitta is the brainchild of a group of chefs from top restaurant Koukouvagia who decided to open a fast food place that would serve iconic Greek foods — like souvlaki, kebab and gyros — made from quality meats, and not the scraps that so often comprise these commonplace snacks.
This concept reminded me of a similar trend in Israel, where leading chefs of fine dining restaurants have taken to opening good, simple food places with low overheads and reasonable prices, in order to attract a wider demographic of customer — and not coincidentally, add to their bottom lines, as profit margins of expensive restaurants have dropped off (one chef of a fancy Italian restaurant switched to pizzas, another top chef opened a rotisserie chicken stand, and the list goes on).
The beef, chicken and lamb we enjoyed at Hoocut was served simply, either wrapped in pitta or piled on a paper plate with french fries. The very reasonable prices made the excellent food taste even better.
There is no bar, but the food can be washed down with beer, wine, ouzo or tsipouro, a popular pomace brandy; like ouzo, this spirit is commonly served in a small plastic bottle (like the liquor on airplanes), along with a glass (or plastic cup) of ice.
Just down the street, now named Athinaidos, is Zisis, which serves small fish and seafood in cones. The fresh fish on display is kept on ice, then fried expertly, so the result is not oily, but delicious.
For dessert, we backtracked to Agias Irinis Street, corner of Aeolus, and Lukumades, a sweet shop named after Greece’s variation on our doughnuts, akin to our “doughnut holes”: deep-fried balls of dough, drenched in honey and cinnamon. Lukumades offers not only this classic version, but also newer, more inventive combinations, such as with ice cream; or with different coatings altogether, such as icing sugar, chocolate or white chocolate; or even filled, with lemon cream, banana cream or other flavors.
After lunch, we headed off for the countryside, and a tour of an organic winery that has produced multiple award-winning wines in European competitions. Pappagiannakos wines are trailblazers in introducing to the world Greek varieties of grapes, notably Malagousia and Sabbatiano, both white grapes; white wines are popular in Greece because of the country’s hot weather, and these wines are served chilled.
We enjoyed our wines paired with soft and hard sheep cheeses made by a neighboring dairy. Virtually all cheeses in Greece are made with sheep’s milk and not cow’s milk, practically ensuring that any cheese you try will be a new experience.
Dinner was at a hotel, which at first did not sound promising. But then we walked into the Rooftop restaurant at the Electra Metropolis Hotel and were greeted by a breathtaking nighttime view of the Acropolis, lit up in all its glory.
The delights of the evening did not end there: we proceeded to enjoy a lavish dinner that included a Greek salad unlike any other I had ever seen, and then all three main course categories: fish, beef and chicken. Remarkably, the menu even listed the origin of the chicken breast — from Pindos — and each time the waiter brought a dish, he mentioned the source of at least one of the ingredients. The feast prepared by Chef Sakis Venetis was not only the best of my trip, it was one of the best I had had in recent memory.
The next day began like the day before, with a full sightseeing schedule, beginning with the famed Acropolis. What I discovered, however, was that walking around the top of the hill, as impressive as it is, is no longer enough: no visit would be complete without touring the new Acropolis Museum as well, which just opened in 2009. The ability to get up close and personal with statuary and stonework that is ordinarily at a further remove gives one a much greater appreciation for the craftsmanship and detail that went into these ancient masterpieces. In the case of the maidens that face outward on the Erechtheion, for example, the museum display enables a 360 degree review — and a rare glimpse at the exquisitely carved plaited hair that cascades down their marble backs.
Athens is blessed with sunny weather more than two-thirds of the time, so it is a good thing that so much great sightseeing involves being outdoors: in addition to the Acropolis, there is Plaka, the picturesque neighborhood with cobblestoned streets; Hadrian’s Arch; the Roman and Greek agoras (ancient marketplaces); and the flea market off Monastiraki Square.
Monastiraki Square is also home to quite a few restaurants. We had lunch at Bairaktaris, a sprawling, bustling taverna with a sign that boasts it was founded almost 140 years ago, in 1879! A restaurant that has been in business for more than a century must be doing something right, and the moussaka here was truly outstanding: this iconic Greek dish of layered eggplant, potato and ground beef was topped with a thick coating of rich bechamel sauce that looks as appetizing as it tastes.
It was accompanied by a tranche of rustic corn sourdough and washed down with Ezra beer, one of two Greek lagers (the other is Alpha) that is tailor-made for Athens’ warm climate.
Dessert came from a nearby confectionary that specializes in macaroons, Lonis; these feathery light coconut treats featured such unusual flavors as pistachio and rosewater.
For dinner, we drove out to what is known as the Athens Riviera: the beaches of Attica, a province that also includes several islands, and even relaxing thermal hot springs. The Margi is a luxury boutique hotel that offers a gastronomic degustation menu from spring through fall; otherwise, the restaurant is open for dinner (only), seven nights a week.
Margi’s restaurant is Malabar, which serves Mediterranean-Greek fusion cuisine made with organic vegetables grown on the nearby farm owned by the same family that owns the hotel. Our three-course meal prepared by award-winning chef Panagiotis Giakalis was a real masterpiece — and a fitting final banquet to three days of dining par excellence.
Over the course of a 40-year career that has spanned more than 80 countries, award-winning journalist Buzzy Gordon has been a reporter, editor, and travel writer on five continents. His work has appeared in USA Today (where he was a regular travel columnist), National Geographic Traveler, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, among other leading publications. Buzzy is the author of Frommer’s Jerusalem Day by Day Guide and a contributor to publications in Israel and the United States.