Greek cuisine is a blend of indigenous traditions and foreign influences. Neighbouring Italy and Turkey have left a major impact on Greek cuisine, and there are shared dishes with both of these nations. The traditional Greek diet is very Mediterranean, espousing vegetables, herbs, and grains native to the Mediterranean biome. Being a highly maritime nation, the Greeks incorporate plenty of seafood into their diet. Greece is also a major producer and consumer of lamb; beef, pork, and especially chicken are also popular. Olive oil is a staple in Greek cooking, and lemon and tomatoes are common ingredients. Bread and wine are always served at the dinner table.
The cuisine in Greece can be radically different from what is offered in Greek restaurants around the world. Greek restaurants abroad tend to cater more to customer expectations rather than offer a truly authentic Greek dining experience. One example is the famous gyros (yee-ros), a common item on Greek menus outside Greece. While it is a popular fast-food item in Greece today, it is a relatively recent foreign import (adapted from the Turkish döner kebap) and is considered by Greeks as junk food. It is never served in the home and is generally not found on the menus of non-fast-food restaurants.
Greeks live to eat, and eating out is Greece’s national pastime and a rewarding experience for visitors; however, not knowing where to go or what to do can dampen the experience. In the past, restaurants that catered mostly to tourists were generally disappointing. Thankfully, the nation’s restaurant industry has grown in sophistication over the past decade, and it is now possible to find excellent restaurants in highly-touristed areas, particularly areas that are popular with Greek tourists as well. Thus, it remains a good idea to dine where Greeks dine (Go search them at the times Greeks dine: 21:00-23:00). The best restaurants will offer not only authentic traditional Greek cuisine (along with regional specialities) but Greece’s latest culinary trends as well.
A good sign of authenticity is when you get a small free dessert when you ask for the bill. Bad signs are when desserts are listed on the menu, large posters depicting food are seen outside or when a waiter is standing outside yelling for clients to come in or taking your plates away while you are still sitting at the table (traditionally everything is left on the table until the customer is gone, even if there is hardly any space left).
Restaurants serving international cuisine have also made a presence in the country, offering various options such as Chinese, French, Italian, and international contemporary.
Vegan and vegetarian:
Restaurants catering strictly to vegans and vegetarians are practically non-existent outside of Athens. However, there are many vegan and vegetarian dishes in Greek cuisine. As a vegan, you’ll probably end up ordering fava every time you go to a taverna but do ask the waiter if there are other vegan dishes on the menu or if the chef could make a vegan-friendly version of a particular dish. In cases when someone is not familiar with the concept of veganism, you may ask if the food you’re ordering is νηστίσιμο (nistisimo), i.e. appropriate for people who fast for religious reasons. Such food may still contain honey or even seafood, so make sure to ask.
A number of vegan restaurants have opened in and around Athens. Falafel places are also becoming quite popular. There are also many shops with healthy food and a vegan shop, all in addition to ubiquitous fruit and veg shops.
Popular local dishes:
The traditional fast foods are gyros (γύρος, “GHEER-ohs”, not “GY-rohs” as in “gyroscope”), roast pork or chicken (and rarely beef) and fixings wrapped in a fried pita; souvlaki (σουβλάκι, “soov-LAH-kee”), grilled meat on a skewer; Greek dips such as tzatziki (τζατζίκι), made of strained yoghurt, olive oil, garlic and finely chopped cucumbers and dill or mint; and skordhalia (σκορδαλιά), a garlic mashed potato dip which is usually served with deep fried salted cod.
With its extensive coastline and islands, Greece has excellent seafood. Try the grilled octopus and the achinosalata (sea-urchin eggs in lemon and olive oil). By law, frozen seafood must be marked as such on the menu. Fresh fish, sold by the kilogram, can be very expensive; if you’re watching your budget, be sure to ask how much your particular portion will cost before ordering it.
Greek salad (called “country salad” locally, “horiatiki”), a mix of tomatoes, cucumber, feta cheese and onion – all sliced – plus some olives, and occasionally green bell pepper or other vegetables, usually garnished with oregano. Traditionally it is dressed only with olive oil; vinaigrette or lettuce are added only in the most tourist-oriented restaurants. It is the typical summer salad.
- moussaka, a rich oven-baked dish of eggplant, minced meat, tomato and white sauce
pastitsio, a variety of lasagna
- stifado, pieces of meat and onion in a wine and cinnamon stew
- spetzofai, braised sausage with pepper and tomatoes, a hearty dish from the Mt. Pelion region
- sahanaki, fried semi-hard cheese
- paidakia, grilled lamb chops, are also popular. They tend to have a gamier taste and chewier texture than North American lamb chops, which you may or may not like
Fried potatoes (often listed on menus as chips) are a naturalized Greek dish, found almost everywhere. They can be very good when freshly made and served still hot. Tzatziki is usually a good dip for them, though they are still good on their own.
For dessert, ask for baklava, tissue-thin layers of pastry with honey and chopped nuts; or galaktoboureko, a custard pie similar to mille feuille. Other pastries are also worth tasting. Another must-try is yoghurt with honey: yoghurts in Greece are really different from what you used to see at Danone stores: to start with, genuine yoghurt in Greece has 10% of fat. Fruit such as watermelon is also a common summertime treat.
For breakfast, head to local bakeries (fourno) and try fresh tiropita, cheese pie; spanakopita, spinach pie; or bougatsa, custard filled pie, or even a “”horiatiko psomi”, a traditional, crusty village type bread that is a household staple, and very tasty on its own too. All are delicious and popular among Greeks for quick breakfast eats. Each bakery does own rendition and you are never disappointed. Go to the next Kafeneion with them and have it there with a Greek coffee to be local.
A popular drink is a frappe made with instant Nescafé, water, sugar, and sometimes milk. It is frothed and served over ice.
It’s common to charge a cover fee in restaurants officially (i.e. stating it in a receipt), such as €0.30 to €2 per person, but if it’s tending towards €2 you should really consider eating somewhere else.
McDonald’s and Pizza Hut have made a significant presence in Greece over the past 15 years. However, they face strong competition from the popular local chains and they are not really popular with natives, especially outside Athens.
Goody’s is the most popular fast-food chain in the country, offering a large variety of fast food meals, with numerous outlets throughout the country. A hamburger with Coke costs €3-5. Everest is a chain which specialises in hand-held snacks. Also in Thessaloniki you can find Subito. Flocafé is gaining popularity through its coffee and dessert items. There are also many independently-owned fast food businesses that offer typical fast food items, such as gyros. Many of these small businesses tend to be open late at night, and are popular with younger crowds on their way home from a night out.
Those wishing to booze in Greece would be well advised to stick to the traditional domestic Greek products discussed below, which are freely available, mostly cheap by European standards, and usually of good quality. Any imported, non-Greek alcoholic beverages are likely to be very expensive if genuine and, if cheap, may well be “bomba,” a locally distilled alcohol with flavourings which sometimes, especially in island bars catering to young people, masquerade as whisky, gin, etc. If you drink it, you’ll be very sorry. Drink in respectable places where you can see the bartender mix your drink.
A glass of water is traditionally served with any drink you order; one glass for each drink, especially with any form of coffee. Sometimes you even get a glass of water first and then you are asked what you want to drink. Sometimes you might as well get a bottle instead of just a glass. In touristy areas you might have to ask for a glass of water if you want one. If you don’t get water with a coffee you just stepped into a tourist-trap. Also, if you did not explicitly ask for a bottle instead of a glass, and they try to charge you for it you should refuse.
Tap water in most places a tourist would visit is drinkable; if in doubt, ask your hotel. But often though drinkable it doesn’t taste very good, especially on some small islands (as it is imported in and heavily chlorinated), and many visitors, like many Greeks, prefer bottled water. By law, water prices in shops must remain within acceptable limits, making it much cheaper than in Anglosphere nations. A half litre of bottled water costs (May 2013) €0.50 if you buy it on the street, and €0.15 if you buy it from the supermarket.
To be able to purchase or drink alcohol in Greece, by law, you must be 17 and photographic ID will be asked for infrequently, especially in venues that sell food (many independent fast food outlets will serve alcohol).
Greece, an ancient wine producing country, offers a wide variety of local wines, from indigenous and imported grape varieties, including fortified and even sparkling wines. Greek wines are generally not available on the international market, as production is relatively small, costs are quite high and little remains for export. However, in the past decade Greek wines have won many international prizes, with the rise of a new generation of wineries. Exports are rising as well.
Wine (Krasi: κρασί / oenos: οίνος ) is most Greeks’ drink of choice.
Almost every taverna has “barrel wine,” usually local, which is usually of good quality and a bargain (€6-8/litre, but check this before ordering when you are in a touristy area.).
If they have it, try also the Imiglyko (Half-Sweet) red, even if sweet wine is usually not your preference, it is different from anything you know.
Retsina is a “resinated wine” with a strong, distinctive taste that can take some getting used to; the flavour comes from pine resin, which was once employed as a sealant for wine flasks and bottles. The most well-known and cheap-n-dirty is “Kourtaki Retsina”.
Bottled wines have gotten increasingly more expensive; some that the beginner may find worth trying are whites from Santorini and reds from Naoussa and Drama. All wines and alcoholic beverages are cheaper in the super markets, but then you can’t consume them in a bar, unless you keep them hidden in small bottles and use them very discretely.
Even if beer (bira: μπύρα) is consumed all around the country, don’t come to Greece for the beer. The only local varieties widely available are Mythos and Alpha, but Greeks drink mostly Northern European beers produced under license in Greece like Heineken and Amstel. Heineken is affectionately known as “green”; order it by saying “Mia Prasini”.
On the quality front, there is also a microbrewery/restaurant called Craft (2 litre jug also available in large supermarkets), and new organic beer producers like Piraiki Zythopoiia.
The most famous indigenous Greek liquor is ouzo (ούζο), an anise-flavored strong spirit (37.5%), which is transparent by itself but turns milky white when mixed with water. Mainlanders do not drink ouzo with ice, but tourists and Greek islanders generally do. A 200 ml bottle can be under €2 in supermarkets and rarely goes above €8 even in expensive restaurants. Mytilene (Lesbos) is particularly famous for its ouzo. A few to try are “Mini” and “Number 12,” two of the most popular made in a middle-of-the-road style, “Sans Rival,” one of the most strongly anise-flavored ones, “Arvanitis,” much lighter, and the potent “Barba Yianni” and “Aphrodite,” more expensive and much appreciated by connoisseurs.
Raki or tsikoudia is the Greek equivalent of the Italian grappa, produced by boiling the remains of the grapes after the wine has been squeezed off. It is quite strong (35-40% of alcohol) and in the summer months it is served cold. It costs very little when one buys it in supermarkets or village stores. The raki producing process has become a male event, as usually men are gathering to produce the raki and get drunk by constantly trying the raki as it comes out warm from the distillery. One raki distillery in working order is exhibited in Ippikos Omilos Irakleiou in Heraklion, but they can be found in most large villages. In northern Greece it is also called tsipouro (τσίπουρο). In Crete, raki is traditionally considered an after-dinner drink and is often served with fruit as dessert.
Coffee (kafes: καφές) is an important part of Greek culture.
The country is littered with kafetéries (kafetéria singular) which are cafes that serve as popular hangouts for Greeks, especially among the under-35s. They tend to be pretty trendy -yet relaxed- and serve a variety of beverages from coffee, to wine, beer, spirits, as well as snacks, desserts, and ice cream. In the pleasant months of spring, summer, and fall, all kafetéries provide outdoor tables/seating and they are busiest with customers in the late afternoon and evening hours. Several kafetéries also double as bars.
Kafeneia (coffee houses) are ubiquitous, found even in the smallest village, where they traditionally served a function similar to that of the village pub in Ireland. Their clientele tends to be overwhelmingly men over 50, however everyone is welcome, male or female, young or old, Greek or foreigner; and you will be treated extremely courteously. However, if you’re not interested in cultural immersion to this extent, you may find the kafeneia pretty boring.
Traditionally, coffee is prepared with the grounds left in. It is actually a somewhat lighter version of Turkish coffee but in Greece it’s only known as Greek coffee – “ellinikós kafés” or simply “ellinikós.” Despite being slightly lighter than the original Turkish coffee, it remains a thick, strong black coffee, served in a small cup either sweetened or unsweetened. If you don’t specify, the coffee is usually served moderately sweet. Greek coffee traditionally was made by boiling the grounds and water on a stove in a special small pot called a “briki.” More and more now days it’s made by simply shooting steam from an espresso machine into the water/coffee mixture in the briki, resulting in an inferior drink. If you find a place that still actually uses a stove burner to make their coffee, you can be sure it’s a traditional cafe.
During the hot summer months, one of the most popular coffees at the kafetéries is frappé (φραπέ): shaken iced instant coffee. This is actually an original Greek coffee and can be really refreshing, ordered with or without milk, sweetened or unsweetened.
Coffee can also be made espresso-style, French press (mainly at hotels), and with modern filter technology. The latter is sometimes known as Γαλλικός: gallikos (“French”) which can lead to some confusion with the press method. It is best to ask for φίλτρου: filtrou, which refers unambiguously to filter coffee. It is best not to ask for black coffee, as it is unlikely that anyone will understand what you are asking for.
Espresso freddo or cappuccino freddo have gained much popularity the last decade, and these are the most popular coffees throughout Greece. Espresso freddo is simply espresso + ice; cappuccino freddo refers to espresso + ice + chill milk foam. They may be served from mousse containers, not prepared to order; be careful to check.
In mass-sector taverns and cafe, iced tea typically means instant; ask twice if you prefer brewed ice tea.