Greece Here AND There (old, but rel.)
There are millions of GREAT places to eat in Greece. Just as everywhere else in the world, NYC included, you have to chowhound. Walk, walk, and walk. Try what looks good and keep walking to find more. There are not many Michelin stars twinkling in the nighttime sky over Athens. But as a chowhound, you are surely not lured to the obvious. But after a salad of crisped loudsa, fennel, shaved graviera, and a citrus vinaigrette with grapefruit pieces one evening, and a moist lamb shank in a thyme sauce resting on a bed of tomato and feta risotto another night, you'll begin to wonder why.
Welcome to the new Athenian cuisine. Moussaka? Sure, it's on menus everywhere. Lamb and fish remain staples, and are quite good at many traditional Greek restaurants. However, Athens has its share of good restaurants that raise traditional Greek cuisine to new heights while creating other dishes influenced by flavors more common to other parts of the Mediterranean that are/were inhabited by Greeks.
In almost any large American city, Athens' best restaurants would be top-ranked, with prices to match: Notwithstanding Greece's reputation as a cheap destination, it's easy to pay more than $100 for dinner for two.
That's without ordering a bottle of wine, which remains a risk in a country that is now known for producing some fine wines, but has yet to shake its reputation for resin-tasting retsina.
The problem is that Greek food hasn't been well introduced to outside countries looking for the familiar. And when they visit Greece they are searching for the same easy crap. The simple approach that many 'ethnic' cuisines first suffer, and Greek cuisine STILL suffers, is that the first waves of immigrants display only what they THINK will sell well in a place where the hamburger is King. And what is easy to make and display, like the hamburger. Souvlaki and gyros is what people think of when they think "Greek". If they don't call them by the non-Greek name 'kabob'. Most, if not all, "Greek" roadside ramshackle 'pitarias' in Holland, and other Scandinavian countries, the UK, GB (or whatever they are calling themselves these days) and other places have been sold to Middle Eastern keepers. They change a couple of things here and there and call it by what they know. The problem comes when these places are remembered as being "Greek" and people associating BOTH as the SAME. They ain't. Times change, and so do people.
Even in Greece, as in most of the "old world", it is historically customary to dine at home. Doing otherwise would suggest that mom has "other" matters to attend to. NOT a compliment. Those days are fading fast, if not faded already. There is still that mentality amongst many (of the older set and those from the very few remote villages) that food prepared 'outside'(of the home) is cut rate, loaded with 'fillers' and never as good as mom made. I hear only this from coworkers and friends when I discuss their country of origin cuisine. I get it from "Little India" in Manhattan has keepers that are "in it only for the money", implying that the food isn't up to par. Also, I can't get many of them to eat there. To, "Why would I eat at an Italian place when momma has the best gravy at home?" And they are right.
Athens preparation for the Olympic Games in 2004 is now well underway which has resulted in the refurbishment of numerous older hotels in a contemporary style. The quality of restaurants is also improving and the style is becoming more contemporary.
It is only a few years since the first places which really deserve to be called "gourmet restaurants" were opened. These sophisticated eateries offer world-class cuisine ranging from the classic to the innovative.
There are 'old style' places (tavernas) that feature some 'old style' Greek food that is typically found in restaurants, as opposed to 'home style' found in homes. There are Albanian immigrants and immigrants from all over the world selling their brand of 'Greek' 'food'. If you are lucky to avoid these places, and, like everywhere else, are 'in-the-know', you can find many, many hidden treasures.
In Athens there are also many contemporary places serving real GREEK food in a contemporary style. You most likely won't see many older mind set Greeks dining in those establishments as you would in the old style tavernas. The concept is too..... contemporary. (Like dining at the latest and greatest Italian spot in Manhattan. Many NY'ers, not many Italians from Italy (or Brooklyn, LOL - just kidding!)
You will see Greek food in though. And a good example of it, if you chowhound.
The Greeks are renowned for their hedonistic lifestyle and the long nights they like to spend eating, drinking and dancing. Few other places on earth can match the city's lively nightlife scene. Late dinners (taken at around 10pm) and nightclubs that fill up after midnight are extremely typical there so don't be alarmed by the empty tables if you show up early for dinner!
Several factors make dining and partying so pleasurable in Athens. First there is the contagious joy shown by Athenians as they savour their food, dance on any available surface - including tables - and chat endlessly. Secondly, the picture perfect scenery - be it a traditional taverna located in a vine-covered backyard in Plaka or a seaside fish restaurant in Piraeus - will add to your enjoyment.
Greece is a wonderland for chowhounds. Probably, by definition, the best chowhounding country in the world. But if you are an impatient/picky/particular chowhound and settle for the tourist traps and the usual glop, then you got what you came for. The rest will dine on some of the best cuisine in the world.
Here are some suggestions for dining in Greece:
14 Deligiorgi St, Istioplooiko Omilos (Yachting Club)
Phone 210 4112043.
Chef Lefteris Lazarou. Extensive wine list. Listed in the Athinorama guide Golden Chefs Hat awards. Michelin star.
116 Keramikou and Iera Odos, Gazi, Athens.
Chef Yiannis Baxevanis. Listed in the Athinorama guide Golden Chefs Hat awards.
Phone 210 - 3465830
SPONDI - 5 Pyrronos St, Pangrati, Athens.
Chef Herve Pronzato. Very pricy. Tops the Athinorama guide Golden Chefs Hat awards.
Phone 210 752 0658
There's a lot of good information in this post, and I agree with most of what you say.
A couple comments on the recommendations, however. Varoulko is an excellent restaurant specializing in seafood, with a terrific view, but it is very pricey. Four of us recently ate there and it was something like 435Euros, including wine. The food is delicious, and we were most happy with our meal and the excellent wine, but there are many places to eat in Athens that aren't so expensive. I'll do a separate post on a new restaurant called Logia tis Ploris, which is two blocks away from Varoulko, and serves excellent seafood. Certainly Logia tis Ploris is less refined than Varoulko, but at 20Euros a person including wine, it is also much more affordable.
Spondi is an upscale French restaurant and it is a fine restaurant. I have no complaints about it. But if you are going to Athens, where there are now so many good restaurants serving Greek food, it would not be my first recommendation for a visitor who has only a short time in the country.
Yiannis Baxevanis is no longer at Kitrino Podilato. He now has his own restaurant called Giorti Baxevanis which is at the end of Iera Odos in Xaidari. Giorti Baxevanis is an excellent restaurant but in a northern suburb of Athens that you can only reach by bus or taxi (supposedly the metro will go there by 2009). I haven't eaten at Kitrino Podilato since he left, so can't say what it's like now.
re: Laurie Constantino
That post is from 2003 I think. I'm sure things have changed. I thank you for your updates on Kitrino Podilato and Giorti Baxevanis. These all deserve a seperate post of their own.
For the ONLY restaurant with a michelin rating in Greece, even YOU have eaten at Varoulko. Had to try it, no? Except for the price (with Wine), did the food measure up? Comparing the local taverna isn't quite fair, but the place you mention, Logia tis Ploris, sounds like it may not be your typical corner fish taverna. Price isn't the only factor, just the main one for most people. The fact that you stayed to eat in the same neighborhood as Varoulko, the latest trendy neighborhood in Athens, shows that you also like something more refined than the sorry offerings of the corner taverna or tourist trap. I'll continue my rant on Logia tis Ploris on your new post with that heading.
NatS, you must think I'm criticizing your listing of Varoulko as a good place to eat. I'm not at all. Like I said it's an excellent restaurant and our food was delicious, creative, and perfectly-executed. I'd recommend it in a heartbeat. I was only trying to let people know what they should expect in terms of price if they decide to go there.
One more thing, I just noticed the address NatS gave for Varoulko is in Piraeus (the town). It has now moved to central Athens, and is located at 80 Piraeus (Πειραιώς) Street in Kerameikos.
As for "the sorry offerings at the corner taverna or tourist trap," I'll pass up the tourist traps, but happily enjoy meals at a good corner taverna any time. You can get excellent, high-quality food in Athens without having to spend an arm and a leg for dinner.
For special occasions, sure, I'll spend the money at Varoulko or the other high-priced, high-quality Athens restaurants. For everyday, the high-priced spread is not for me. And not just because of the money, although that is certainly a factor. I don't want to eat highly refined, extra-special, multi-course dinners every night.
re: Laurie Constantino
Like I stated above, that post was from 2003 I think. Varoulko moved from that now depressed neighborhood to a very trendy neighborhood. It still might look a little "run down", but so did LES in Manhattan a few years ago. Thus the find you state is serving decent food at Logia tis Ploris. The young, hip guys at this place didn't choose this spot because it is anything else but trendy. And the menu you listed shows the trendiness of the place. That might be a good thing.
I have to agree that you are correct. But I haven't found "excellent, high-quality food in Athens without having to spend an arm and a leg for dinner" to be the norm. Thus we have us chowhounds chow hounding around looking to "happily enjoy meals at a good corner taverna any time." These places are few and far between. As everywhere else in the world.
As for the specifics, I like what you say, but all of us have our preferences and our weariness.