by Gilly Cameron Cooper
What is the essence of a good taverna? Good value Greek family cooking and barrel wine, a place for local people to gather, where eating is almost incidental to socialising with your ‘parea’? In the taverna hotspot of Plaka in central Athens – the tumble of streets at the foot of the Acropolis – Athenian businessman Paris Theodorou claims: “there isn’t a single good tavern any more; they are all for tourists” – and they do no favours for the reputation of Greek cooking.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the visitor to Greece experienced the true potential of Greek cooking and the unique atmosphere that goes with it rather than the ubiquitous ‘village salad’, overcooked ‘lamp’ chops and tepid oven dishes, one-ply paper napkins, and casual service?
All is not lost. A new wave of Greek eateries conserves all that is good about traditional tavernas but adds fresh ingredients of imagination, flair, variety and choice. They may be more expensive (from €25-45 a head for two courses with wine) – cool décor, good chefs, organic food and eco-sensitivity don’t come cheap – but they are essentially Greek in menu and style, and still well below international restaurant prices.
Tzitzingas & Mermingas, an olive stone’s throw from Syntagma Square, encapsulates all that a ‘moderni’ or ‘creative’ (dimiourghiki) taverna should be.
Tzitzingas & Mermingas, an olive stone’s throw from Syntagma Square, encapsulates all that a ‘moderni’ or ‘creative’ (dimiourghiki) taverna should be, and arguably pioneered the genre when the original opened in Ano Patissia in 1995 (there’s another in Xhalandri). The non-discerning tourist might overlook it because there’s no view in Mitropoleos Street, but that’s fine with Victoria Dima, daughter of one of the founders and co-manager of the Syntagma branch: “we cater for everyone, not especially for tourists,” she says. The place buzzes with Athenians having a break from work or shopping, and fast-moving waiters. And the prices are extraordinarily reasonable (“Greeks spend maybe €20-25 a head, tourists €16-22 because they eat less,”) for the imaginative and excellent food. There is not one tired taverna dish on the menu. As with many of the New Age eateries, traditional divisions of taverna and mezzedopoleio are fudged, and each customer is given an ouzerie-style glass of raki and saucer of olives on the house. A poikilia for a crowd to dip into might include mille-feuille with grilled vegetables, xhorta with feta, tomato, and herbs, and succulent sesame chicken bites. Main course favourites are pork fillet with wine, capers, and aubergine and potato mash, and chicken with mastic sauce and bacon. There are nice touches: cutlery is found in the drawer of each table, and the designer quality-paper table covers are the classiest in town. Traditional meets modern in the interior design, with high walls lined with shelves like in an old grocery store.
Cafe Avissinia in Monastiraki, located amongst the open-air antique shops, also has strong regional flavour, and a dark, cosy, ‘paradosiako’ (Greek for traditional) interior. For the price of two servings of delicious moussaka with spinach you could buy a copy of the cook book by owner Keti Koufonikola.
Cafe Avissinia in Monastiraki also has strong regional flavour, and a dark, cosy, paradosiako interior.
Mani Mani in Koukaki is my favourite top-end modern taverna. I feel as if I am eating authentic Greek food – ingredients and inspiration are from the Peloponnese.
Rustic furniture and a hint of Greece décor are de rigueur in the New Look taverna but given a chic makeover. Gone are flag blue and varnish- brown woodwork; in come chilled out blues, greys, eau de nil, teal and terracotta. Trata, on the edge of bustling Exarcheia sticks to a reasonably priced, standard fish taverna menu, but backlit, shiny metal colanders stud its walls, and with the white-on-white colour scheme, provide a suitable backdrop for the trendy young professional clientele.
The colourful use of vintage advertisements and posters make Oineas, in the lively heart of Psyrri, stand out, and so does its idiosyncratic but still identifiably Greek cuisine. The brilliantly designed Butcher Shop in the new nightlife mecca of Gazi, incorporates a delicatessen shop window in its striking, monochrome interior; where a full-blooded selection of Greek meat and poultry dishes is supplemented with generous portions of healthy vegetables. Sardelles, the fish restaurant next door, has the same innovative owners. Further down the road in Gazi, Ta Spitakia offer a cosy, playful village-style decor and home-made cooking with Asia Minor influences.
When does a taverna become a restaurant? ManiMani in Koukaki is my favourite top-end modern taverna. I feel as if I am eating authentic Greek food – ingredients and inspiration are from the Peloponnese. But dishes such the Maniot vegetable tower and pepper sauce, or pork with Mani goats cheese and figs in honey and almond sauce, are spiced with a real sense of adventure. There are ghosts of traditional taverna style in the tables and chairs. With its candlelit stairs leading up to elegant neo-Classical dining rooms, and restaurant manners and service, it is not exactly ‘for the people’, but restaurants like this remain accessible to the average pocket and are certainly giving a much-needed boost to Greek cooking.
MANIMANI 10 Falirou St, Koukaki, (+30) 210 9218 180
Butcher & Sardelles 19 Persefonis St, Gazi, 210 3413 440
Oineas 9 Aisopou St, Psyrri Square, 210 3215614
Trata 8 Themistokleous St & 9 Nikitara St, Exarcheia, 210 3838531
Tzitsikas & Mermingas 12-14 Mitropoleos St, Syntagma, 210 324 7607
Ta Spitakia 24 Dekeleon St & Zagreos St, Gazi, 210 3464984
Cafe Avissinia 7 Kinetou St, Monastiraki, 210 3217047
All restaurants mentioned are centrally located (5-15 min walk from Monastiraki or Syntagma Sq.) in some of the most interesting Athenian neighbourhoods. Some (ManiMani, Oineas) do not normally offer outdoor seating and may not be open due to Covid-19 restrictions, so please contact them before your visit.