Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties
- Exploring "The City of the Violet Crown"
It had been more than three years since I last got to use my passport in a country that wasn’t Mexico. My wife was out in Paris for a few weeks this past January and I got the opportunity to join her. But having been to Paris twice already I wanted to add a new country to my list of those visited. A trip to Greece made the most sense and not just because the price was right but also because a longtime friend is currently living in Athens. Since it was winter it was the off-season for the islands but I figured if I visited Athens now I could spend a few more days on the islands when I return to Greece, having already been to Athens. But make no mistake about it this is definitely a city worth revisiting.
Tylixto Greek Wrap
My first order of business after landing and checking in to the hotel was to meet my friend and grab a beer and a gyro sandwich. We were able to do both at Tylixto Greek Wrap - a popular spot right in the middle of a busy pedestrian street in the historical Monastiraki neighborhood. The street used to be home to a bunch of textile shops and over the last decade or so it's become one of the main gathering spots for both tourists and residents. Tylixto is a walk up window popular for gyro sandwiches which come straight from one of two large vertical spits stacked with pork which is one of two noticeable differences in the gyros served in Greece and those served back home in Chicago and the rest of the U.S. where a mix of beef and lamb is standard. The other major difference is french fries are standard with your gyro in Athens where they act as a topping with tomato, onion, Tzatziki.
You'll find this hoppin' spot for Greek donuts directly next door to the gyro shop up above. So it only made sense to check it out since it was on the list and all. LUKUMAΔΕΣ is a new school spot offering up one of the worlds oldest pastries. Greek donuts or Lukumades as they're called in Greece go all the way back to the days of Aristotle who once wrote about these fried fluffy balls of dough. Since this was my first time trying them I got an order of plain which comes drizzled with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon. Due to the constant flow of customers they fry the Lukumades non-stop so they come served piping hot. These were really good but really heavy. I could only do a few of them.
Nolan is a contemporary restaurant recommended in the Michelin Guide among other lists. It's ran by a local chef who's part Greek and part Japanese. Greco-Japanese flavors aren't a pair you see sharing the same bed too often so I wanted to check it out. I enjoyed the meal which hit all the traditional Greek and Japanese notes - fresh, colorful, simple, salty, sweet, sour. Reservations recommended.
Short fin squid with fennel
I was very much looking forward to taking a step back in time at the 150+ year old Diporto. I learned about the iconic Athens taverna from the good people at Culinary Backstreets. It's located in what's literally an underground room right near the famous Central Market. The promise of "no sign, no menu, and no English" put Diporto on my must visit list. We visited early one morning thinking they would be in full swing but they were just getting started for the day (most places in Athens don't open early). The sardines weren't ready as one of the guys working was peeling them one by one at a table while the older guy who seemed to be the owner was tending to the pots on the burners. He told us only chickpeas and fava beans were ready so we got an order of each with a big loaf of crusty bread. The fava beans were mashed and served cold like a hummus with a bunch of olives, lemon, and onion on top while the chickpeas were a melt in your mouth stewed variety. While we were eating the old man brought us a bowl of simple but sensational orzo soup. This is peasant food at it's finest.
Savory meat and cheese and spinach filled pies are a favorite snack of Athenians. You'll find 100's of pie options throughout Athens. Each spot does them a little different and offers a selection of pies ranging savory to sweet so of course each local has their favorites. One of the most popular is a place called Μάμ (pronounced Mam) that's known for their tiropita (pie with low fat cheese). Since 1958.
Cheese Pie at Μάμ
You have to try a spinach pie when in Athens and my friend brought me to his favorite spot for one. Makedonikon is a time capsule spot in the city centre where local law students and tourists in the know line up for spanakopita and the likes. The phyllo dough on these was next level. Since 1974.
Souvlaki is Greece's most popular snack. It's typically served in a pita as a quick sandwich in Athens but O Elvis Souvlaki is the exception. They serve charcoal grilled skewers of meat on a plate with some fries. The use of pork is another common trait at the city’s souvlaki shops but Elvis offers a few different meat options including lamb which is pictured here with their pork. Some of the juiciest skewers of meat I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. Made even better with a little splash of lemon. To me this is the epitome of Greek cuisine in that it’s simple while also being extremely flavorful. For those wondering about the Elvis name? Europeans have long stanned for American entertainers.
I ended up at this popular street food stand after another busy spot down the block had a long line that wasn't moving. Falafel in Europe is so much better than most of the places I've been to in the States and I think part of that is because Europe has a better street food culture. I noticed a nice crowd huddled around the ordering window at Falafellas and it was moving so I jumped in to try it out. On top of falafel they also offer fried Greek meatballs wrapped up with all the typical falafel toppings. That sounded good so I went ahead and got one with everything and that's where I think European spots really have the American falafel shops beat - an abundance of fresh toppings.
Here's a spot that always seems to come up when Athens' best restaurants are discussed. Seychelles has been packing them in on a nightly basis since their opening in 2014. This modern Greek Taverna is a favorite of both Athenians and tourists alike. The menu changes regularly with the exception of their signature Papperdelle pasta which you'll see sitting on every occupied table. It’s a tomato free recipe that pairs beef and lamb confit with a soft and salty and creamy Greek cheese. The secret might be in the cooking process which consists of boiling the noodles in a very little amount of water, which is slowly added when needed. The end result is a flavor banger. While the pasta was the star of our meal the mutton kebabs with a feta - tomato paste were also pretty good as was a banana curd dessert of some sort. This was the spot that almost everyone who had dining recs in Athens suggested so make sure you get a reservation as it’s really popular, and rightfully so.
Every Athenian has a go-to spot for Souvlaki. It's to Athens as the hot dog is to Chicago in that it's a commonly found snack. Kostas is probably the city's most iconic stand so I made sure to stop by and try a sandwich. They opened in 1950 and are still ran by Kostas though it's the son of the founding father. Kostas serves up what's a slightly smaller than average souvlaki but fans will tell you it doesn't need to be the biggest to be the best. A skewer of lean pork comes wrapped in a toasted grease free pita with red onion, tomato, tzatziki, parsley, paprika and their signature tomato sauce.
My favorite souvlaki came from this place which commonly popped up when searching online for the best that Athens had to offer. Good marketing by them to include their established date in the name as it caught my eye. Lefteris O Politis serves up a beef souvlaki as the owners father came to Athens from Constantinople where pork is/was non-existent with the majority Muslim population. I came here right around their opening time and there was already a nice line. Extra juicy ground beef kebabs are seared on a sizzling hot flatttop and dressed with tomato, red onion, and a dash of paprika.
We took a daytrip to the town of Pireas for some fresh fish. The city by the seaside is basically an extension of Athens and the launching point for the Greek Islands. But it’s also a town that offers up the best seafood in the Athens area. My friend got a hot tip by a friend of his from here about a spot that’s not on the water and thus is a bit more local than the restaurants that are. Another good sign was the menu changes daily based on what’s fresh. On our visit that included grilled sardines and fresh fried squid paired with fresh cut fries and fried cheese (saganaki) among other treats the kitchen sent out. A perfect little lunch on a beautiful January day. I could get used to fresh fish and extra mild winters mixed with long summers spent island hopping. Copy and paste the name to find this place.
If you're looking for the best gyro in Athens it felt like that was always the closest one to you. I know it's a bit of a cliche to say but the truth is they're all very similar over there just like they are here. The difference is they serve a higher quality product that features pork and not lamb / beef. You can see the layers of meat in each sliced piece which is always a good sign when it comes to spit roasted meat. I was walking by Bairaktaris Tavern which was busy on a beautiful Sunday. I watched as some customers walked up and ordered a gyro to eat while strolling and I followed in their footsteps.
There's also a ton of falafel options in Athens for those that don't eat meat or want a change of pace from it. Falafel Al Sharq is an Egyptian owned spot that serves up some stellar balls of fried chickpeas. This is the type of place where backpackers can get a complete meal for around 5 euro.
One of the main things I wanted to do in Athens was eat dinner at a classic Greek Taverna. You’ll find 100’s if not 1000’s of them across the city and I settled on Karavitas which has been at it since 1926. Diners are greeted with massive barrels of wine that line the walls upon entry. The next thing you notice is the smell of smoke coming from the kitchen. Karavitas is known for having some of the smokiest lamb chops in town. Their most popular menu item is available by the kilo (half kilos too) and served with fries and lots of lemon. Lamb chops in Greece are sliced different than they are in the States. Over here they’re typically served to groups of diners and thus they’re thinly sliced and piled high on a platter. I’ve been craving these lamb chops regularly since my return to Chicago. We also got Greek meatballs that were somehow extremely firm on the outside and seriously soft within. I wish I knew their secret as I’ve never had a meatball quite like that. A Greek salad with homemade Tzasitski rounded out a very satisfying meal to end a very satisfying visit to Athens. Not sure when I’ll be back but I look forward to another meal in a classic Greek Taverna when I return. See ya next time!
Dinner at Karavitas Tavern
See ya next time @chibbqking