It’s one of the oldest cities on the planet, the birthplace of democracy, and a destination where history greets you at every corner. But just because Athens, Greece is deeply rooted in antiquity doesn’t mean that its cuisine isn’t cutting-edge. When hashing out a dining agenda in the cradle of Western civilization, bypass restaurants hawking tourist specials of pastitso and moussaka and indulge in fare with a local flair instead.
Greeks typically don’t indulge in breakfast, but that’s not to say Athens doesn’t have restaurants catering to tourists with omelets, fried eggs and an assortment of breakfast meats. Most hotels include breakfast buffets complete with hard-boiled eggs, deli meats and cheeses, and toast. The best way to utilize the most important meal of the day, however, is to indulge in one of the many mind-blowing Greek sweets that — when paired with a strong coffee like the ever-popular Nescafé frappé or cappuccino freddo (vocabulary you should commit to memory) — will give you the perfect start to your day. The stars of this sugary category are bougatsa pastries filled with sweet cream, and fried-to-order loukoumades, Greece’s version of the doughnut.
Bougatsa hails from northern Greece and is made from wrapping phyllo dough around a filling. Many streetside stands in Athens bake it filled with cream or savory mizithra cheese, along with spanakopitas (spinach pies) and tiropitas (traditional cheese pies). Go for the sweet cream filled bougatsa; it will arrive as a heavenly pillow dusted with powdered sugar. One the best spots in Athens to pick up the specialty is on the square in the neighborhood of Psiri (Irolo 1). If you walk into Thessaloniki Bougatsadiko, a 24-hour café, at just the right time, you’ll see them finessing the phyllo right at the counter.
On the gooier side of the spectrum lie loukoumades: Greece’s version of fried dough traditionally topped with honey syrup and cinnamon. People also know them as honey puffs or Greek doughnuts, and they embody both descriptions. Your go-to place in Athens for traditional loukoumades is also the oldest: Krinos (Aiolou 87), which started frying them in 1922. Ask for a plate freshly fried, and when you bite into the crunchy, light, sweet goodness sprinkled with cinnamon, they will melt in your mouth. New to central Athens is a shop aptly named Loukoumades (Aiolou 21), which aims to elevate the sweet treat to new heights. In the clean designs of the shop, bite into loukoumades treated in a variety of ways: topped with ice cream or sour cherry, or filled with sweet cream, chocolate, or mastic, a fresh, herbaceous flavor derived from the resin of a plant found on the Greek island of Chios.
Traditionally, Greeks are sipping their third or fourth coffee by the time lunchtime swings into high gear at around 2 p.m. Luckily, Melilotos, located in the center of Athens, just off the trendy retail block of Ermou Street, opens at 1 p.m. (Monday through Saturday) and 2 p.m. (Sunday), serving its riffs on traditional Greek cuisine. The menu changes frequently, but you can always count on an interesting array of dishes that range from salads and pastas to grilled meats and more inventive creations utilizing fresh ingredients such as the tart that layers thinly sliced beets over a breadcrumb crust surrounded by tarama salata (a Greek dip made from fish roe) and topped with smoked eel; skioufikta, freshly hand-rolled pasta from Crete tossed with mushrooms and chicken; and salmon en papillote (salmon cooked in paper) with celery, leeks, fennel and a spinach sauce that incorporates mastic.
Other lunch options include venturing to Souvlaki Row for a meal at O Thanasis (69 Mitropoleos), located right off the northeast corner of Monastiraki Square. Order however many kebobs — lamb, chicken or pork — you can stomach, and add a side of fries that you will then stuff into your pita sandwich along with the cucumber-yogurt dip, tzatziki. O Thanasis is the perfect spot for late night eats, too.
Coffee in Greece has evolved past the traditional tiny cups of Greek (or Turkish) brew that leave a layer of sediment on the bottom of your cup. Those cups are great for deciphering fortunes from the grounds left in a finished cup, but now with the artisanal coffee widely available, people expect more out of their caffeinated beverage. Find expertly brewed coffee at Tailor Made in the center of Athens at Plateia Agias Eirinis 2. The 2-year-old micro-roaster sources its beans sustainably and brews cups of filtered coffee and single-origin espresso. The barista will be more than happy to explain the characteristics of the beans on the daily menu, and whether it’s 100 percent yellow catuai varietal from Panama or an heirloom varietal from Ethiopia, he will meticulously pour you a hand-brewed cup. The vibrant spot offers plenty of outdoor seating around Agia Irinis Square, and also serves teas and cocktails late into the evening.
No matter what time of day cocktails call, drinks are best served in Athens with a view. Climbing up to the rooftop terrace of 360 Cocktail Bar, you’re met with unparalleled views of the nearby Acropolis. Ponder the birth of civilization in a garden of olive trees while you sip on innovative creations such as the G. Spiced made with Cazadores añejo tequila, orgeat syrup, homemade agave-chili nectar, lime and ginger, or the V for Violet made with Hayman’s London dry gin, The Bitter Truth violet liqueur, Giffard elderflower syrup, lime and sugar.
For a more luxurious experience (and a price tag to match) hit the rooftop Galaxy Restaurant & Bar inside the Hilton Athens hotel for live DJ beats, cocktails, cigars and stellar views of the city.
Chef Lefteris Lazarou started his cooking career in the belly of cruise ships at age 15. He finally decided to recreate his sea experience on land and launched Varoulko in 1987, and for the last 26 years has been cooking cuisine using fresh ingredients. The multilevel restaurant sits unassuming in the up-and-coming neighborhood of Keramikos. A quiet dining room is accented by a whimsical mural on a far wall and a reservation for the rooftop terrace in warmer months pairs dinner with snap-worthy views of the Acropolis. The restaurant’s five-course seafood-focused tasting menu, dictated by your server, takes the traditional and weaves it with the unexpected. Indulge on dishes such as crispy fillets of red sea bream sautéed on fine slices of country bread, served with smoked eggplant mousse; and grilled prawns and cuttlefish served over quinoa. Opt for individual wine pairings, or selections by the bottle, all of which include many notable Greek wines that are rarely distributed outside the country.
Fore carnivores, Vezene is a modern steak and seafood bistro set in central Athens, just steps from the Hilton Athens. There, chef-owner Ari Vezene serves decadent fare in a sleek yet relaxed environment. Pick your cut of meat from a tableside presentation or ask for the daily fish selection. Round out your dinner by ordering selections off the menu such as Scottish salmon tartar, which incorporates beets, cilantro-pink pepper and yuzu lime juice into the mix; a variety of flatbreads such as the baby lamb pie with milk-fed lamb neck and shoulder served with crescenza and Cretan graviera cheeses. Chef Vezene’s braised oxtail youvetsi (Greek stew) in Nebbiolo (a red Italian wine grape) is his homage to the classic Greek comfort dish. It arrives as 24-hour braised buffalo oxtail and cheeks served over orzo pasta in a Nebbiolo sauce. If you’re dining with a party of four or more people, don’t leave until you’ve ordered Ari’s Deal Closer: a slab of ice cream topped with hot fudge, butterscotch and nuts.
Photos Courtesy of Christina Xenos and Vezene