Where to chow in Thessaloniki, Greece
There are a few veiled references to Thessaloníki on the interwebs, but nothing concrete about where to eat, although I hear rumors that it's some of the best Greek food in Greece.
I'm no expert in Greek cuisine and am headed there for work in a few days. I'm giving a speech so I'll have 3 "off" days for culinary exploration. If you have any general suggestions for Greek "staples", or specific restaurants to check out I'd be much obliged.
Breakfast/snacks: Greece does not really have a sit-down breakfast culture. Locals usually grab a coffee and a pita, bouyatsa, or koulouri to go. Thessaloniki is filled with little stores that make fresh pitas (pie) to go, typically with phyllo pastry - cheese, spinach, greens, pumpkin, all sorts of fillings. Thessaloniki is known for bouyatsa pie; you can order 1 portion or a half portion that are cut into bite-size pieces with the filling of your choice; mince meat, spinach, mushroom, cheese, sweet custard. The latter two flavors are the most popular (and most delicious imo). The city is also famed for its koulouria; very basic but yummy bread rolls with sesame seeds. They are available on many street corners; if you can catch their scent, that means they are freshly baked.
Lunch/dinner: Keep in mind that lunch is typically the biggest meal of the day, and Greeks eat late; 2-3 is normal for lunch and dinner at 10 is not considered late. For a fast food-type meal, there are a ton of grill shacks that provide gyro. Gyros in Thessaloniki are humongous, and you have a huge choice of traditional condiments aside from the typical tsatsiki, a lot of which are not usually available in the rest of Greece. The city is known for tyrokafteri (a creamy, spicy feta-based spread), paprika spread, and red pepper-based spreads. You don't have to go for gyro-style meat if you don;t like it; most grills offer a variety of different kinds of cuts of meats. Another great quick bite is the various no-frills restaurants around the harbour and food market for fried cod and french fries, a sort of northern Greek version of fish and chips. Here is a good article about it:
Another no-frills type of meal is at little restaurants that serve patsa, aka tripe soup. It's apparently the best thing ever for a hangover, but it's definitely an aqcuired taste, so if you're an adventurous eater... Imo it's more the smell that's offputting; the taste itself quite hearty and pleasant. Anyway, these stores usually serve a few other kinds of traditional soup, for example psarosoupa (fish stew), fasolada (bean stew), and youvarlakia (meatball soup with egg-lemon sauce). With the exception of patsa, these are all typical meals that you would have in a Greek household, and they are great comfort foods.
"Serious" lunch/dinner: I don't know the right word to use, because Greek meals are far from formal, but in any case, for a more serious, sit-down sort of meal, you can go for an ouzeri/mezedopolio/taverna. All serve more or less the same thing, with slight variances. Some specialize more in meat, some in fish, and some in meze, but the best places should always have a ton of meze and salads available. (While there are many great European-style restaurants in Thessaloniki, where you order one dish and a salad, that's not something that you can't get in other countries.) The so-called Greek salad is actually called horiatiki in Greece, and it's definitely not the only salad option. Local meze/main courses include anything with bell peppers (both hot and mild - be sure you know what you're ordering before biting in!), anything with mussels, and lots of Turkish-influenced tastes like bouyiourdi (Turkish-derived tomato-based dip/stew baked in individual clay pots), and Smirneika meatballs. In general, northern Greek cuisine uses a lot of sweet spices (ex. cinnamon) and fruits like quince and figs in their savoury foods, so keep an eye out for food like that, as it a marker of regional cooking.
Dessert: Most good restaurants will actually serve you a small selection of dessert treats free of charge. Thessaloniki is heaven if you have a sweet tooth, I don't know where to start. Keep an eye out for Panorama triangles, a cream-filled phyllo pastry; a few stores specialize just in those. There is a pastry store called Hatzis (various locations) that specialize in syrupy deserts from Asia Minor; for an unexpected desert, try taouk kiouskou pudding, which is made from chicken! It's actually really good! Hatzis also sells kaimaki (buffalo cream) as a side to its pastries; it's my favorite thing ever, and extremely hard to find outside of Greece, Turkey and the Middle East. Another famous bakery/pastry store is Terkenlis, located right on a corner of the main shopping street Tsimiski and the main square, Aristotelous. It is most famous for its tsoureki, a sweet bread with a very chewy texture, freshly baked every day. It's also available with various glazes and fillings, my favorite being chesnut.
Street food: Aside from the aforementioned koulouri, you can also find vendors selling roasted chesnuts and salep (a hot rose/orange-scented, flour-based beverage) this time of the year. It's very Christmas-y. If you take a walk along the bay, you can also find really good grilled corn on the cob.
Food browsing/shopping: The city is famous for the Modiano food market, which is easy to go to, as it's right in the heart of the city. Keep an eye out for the vendors who sell various condiments and meze; if you pop into one of the many bakeries (and Greece has A LOT of bakeries) for some fresh bread, you can make the easiest creative sandwich ever. Just be forewarned that the butcher section of the market has made some of my foreign friends queasy, as they're not used to seeing the dead animals in full, heads and all. Also the fish section is very stinky, but that's to be expected, right?
For food shopping, any delicatessen around this market has a lot of good stuff on offer; aside from the usual souvenirs like olive oil and honey (imo too heavy and potentially messy to travel with) Turkish delights (loukoumia) and petsa (a kind of proto-fruit roll up, this actually tastes like real fruit, usually apricot) are treats that are hard to find in Southern Greece and the islands. Also, a tup of ipobrixio (a vanilla or mastic-flavored paste that's eaten as it's dipped in and out of a glass of water with a spoon) is a Greek childhood staple. If you find locally produced condiments such as mustard, these will probably be very good. Mastic-flavored liquor is a very popular apertif/digestif to give as a present here, (although it's more local to the island of Chios).
Drinks: Greece excels at Italian-style coffee (capuccino, espresso etc.), I've had Italians tell me so. If you're going to order traditional Greek (it's actually Turkish, just don't order it that way), make sure it's made using a "briki", otherwise it's not good. Frappe is the modern Greek coffee, it actually originated in Thessaloniki a few decades back. It is very strong and not a particularly refined coffee, but I mention it because it's a veeeery local thing to order frappe and sit at a cafe with your friends nursing it for hours on end. In fact, we are made fun of it by the rest of Greece, in addition to our love for bouyatsa:) The only thing I wouldn't order is tea, unless a cafe has a great tea menu; if it doesn't, you'll just get a Lipton bag and a mug of hot water.
Alcohol-wise, you have your pick of just about everything here, depending on where you go; beer, wine (Greek wine is a very safe bet, it's good stuff even though it's not so famous abroad), cocktails. If you want to drink hard alcohol (cocktail, vodka, whiskey), don't opt for the dinky student-type bars, but a more upscale place. While I love a grungy bar, sadly the ones here often "dirty" their drinks so as to make more of a profit. Raki and tsipouro are less known abroad than ouzo, but they are equally popular alcoholic drinks among Greeks. This time of the year, ask if a place serves rakomelo, which is heated raki with honey and cardamom. It's the best thing ever in the winter.
Specific places: There's too many to name, but the good thing about Thessaloniki is that it's not very tourist-oriented, thus very few tourist traps. Imo the best place for fish is the harbour, and the suburbs Nea Krini and Aretsou. Definitely make the effort to go to Anopoli (the Old Town) to eat and walk around; it's only a small walk from the center. I mention it because most visitors just frequent the areas around harbor/bay, because of the sea, and overlook the old town on the hills, but it's really special. Ask the people you meet for specific recommendations for where to eat; as with most cities, the best eateries are rarely mentioned in guide books. Almost everyone under 45 speaks English.
The people of Greece are having a hard time right now, and our image is in tatters, so I really hope your impressions of Greece are good. We need to start projecting a better image to the rest of the world. I hope you have a wonderful time.
That was an EXCEPTIONALLY helpful post! I've only been to Greece once before and we didn't get out too much (were there in the midst of the troubles in Athens last spring), so I am very excited about this trip. It will also be the first time my wife and I have been away from our 2 year old son for an extended period, so we are looking forward to the time together and exploring a new country (not to mention not waking up at 7AM every morning when our son starts crying)!
I'm actually headed to Thessaloniki to speak about the economic troubles; while I don't want to let politics intrude on food I think Greece will not be alone in what it is suffering, it just has the unfortunate honor of going first.
I will certainly relay our experience here. We head to Istanbul after 5 days so it will be interesting to compare the cuisines.
Thanks again for your very helpful post. If you're in Thessaloníki next week and would like to meet for lunch, drop me a line.
Thank you so much for your lunch invitation. I live in Athens at the moment for work, otherwise I would totally take you up for it.
I know that Greece is hardly alone in its economic woes, unfortunately it has bore the brunt of the blame game (admittedly sometimes deserved) in this issue. It just makes me sad because lately Greeks have had to deal with some very negative and often unfair stereotypes.
Since you're going to Istanbul after your trip to Greece, I wouldn't look out for the Turkish-derived sweets at places like the Hatzis store I mentioned. As an alternative, the bakery Ble (on Egnatias St. and Agias Sophias St., might be other locations too) offers many baked goods influenced by Cretan cuisine, both sweet and savoury, that would be hard to find outside of Crete.
Also, I didn't mention this before, as it's not exactly Greek, but the pedestrian street known as Navarinou (perpendicular to the main shopping street Tsimiski) is popular for its crepes; every second storefront is a crepe/sandwich place. I don't know how it's possible, but I swear they are better than in France. You can choose savoury flavors, but the variety of sweet condiments and assorted sprinkles (and sometimes fresh fruit)available is mind-boggling, Nutella obviously being the most popular choice.
Btw, I used to visit Istanbul for extended periods of time, so I would be happy to offer some food recommendations for there, if you don't already have them/have never visited before.
Again, have a wonderful trip.
Thank you for your detailed & excellent contribution and exemplary reporting on Thessasalonikki.
Even though we had lived there during the mid 1990s, I could not have done such a superb job.
I do recall a wonderful Wine & Meze Tavern owned and operated by a wonderful Greek gentleman Milos. I am uncertain if he is still operating the business and if patient, I have the address and details in an old notebk.
Have a great time, it is a fab gastronomic Port City.
Restarateur Angelo Kallins had taken over some buildings back in the 1990s and created MILOS. I had made an error in the post above this one; as I remembered Milos, however, not the Owner´s Name, and thus, correction made. It ihad been contemporary Meze in an ancient land.
I also recall: Ouzerie Kismet, terrific mezedes ...
Modiano The Central Mkt.
The Port and White Tower - lovely
Palati was alot of fun, and good meze
Since we have not been in quite awhile, I do not know if they are still open However, the gent from Salonica shall know or can check for you.
Good post and thanks again.