One would think having Greek food in Greece is a natural choice. Curiously, it’s a bit harder than you think. I first went to Greece in 1971 and had an opportunity to spend a bit of time there having been in a car accident that landed me in the hospital. I’ve been back half a dozen times over the years, have visited every region including a bunch of islands and have a pretty good feel for the country and its food, which I have written about. In the old days, you could walk in anywhere and have a spectacular meal. That’s not so true anymore.
With guidance, experience, the advice of Greek friends and a smidgen of luck, you can eat very good local and traditional Greek food in Greece. You would think that goes without saying. You’re in Greece after all. It can be really hard to find good food, however, and the reason is tourists.
Greece is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, with about 19 million tourists a year visiting the country that has a population of about 10 million. They come for sun, fun and ancient ruins. Unfortunately, food is an afterthought for many of them. And so Greek entrepreneurs serve up a lot of tourist food for them, and although a dish may have a Greek name, tourist food is usually inferior. In fact, Greek tourist food might not be Greek at all, such as wienerschnitzel, or it might be a famous Greek dish, such as moussaka, done poorly and without care.
Knowing where to look
The best way to eat well in Greece is to get some recommendations from friends. I’m lucky to count cookbook author and Zester Daily contributor Diane Kochilas, who lives in Athens, as a friend, and many of her recommendations have hit pay dirt. But what if you don’t have Greek friends? The concierge of your hotel is not necessarily the best guide as you will probably have a hard time convincing him or her that you want the real thing. Greeks hear that all the time, that tourists wants the “real thing.” They don’t believe you because too many tourists, when confronted with olive oil-soaked foods, octopus or grilled intestines, turn their noses up. Many Greeks have been burned with their advice for the “real thing.” A tourist, usually a northern European, will ask for the real thing and then not like it and settle for tourist food. So Greeks may hesitate to steer tourists to the real food.
If you’re seeking the authentic, for dining purposes, stay clear of thickly tourist-besotted areas such as the Plaka in Athens. You’re just not going to find good food there, although I have on occasion found some hidden gems on the periphery of the Plaka. But you don’t need to go too far for food in Athens. The neighborhoods of Monastiri and Psiri offer alternatives. Restaurants come and go, and the quality of their offerings can decline or improve, so travelers shouldn’t rely on specific recommendations from someone who has been to an establishment recently. Instead, learn about a few authentic Greek dishes before you travel, so you can ask the right questions to lead you to a great meal.
Asking the right questions
Since so many towns popular with visitors, both sun worshipers and history buffs, are the sites of ancient ruins, many of these places are devoted to tourism. In places like Crete, or Navplion, or Corfu, the going for gastronomes gets tougher. One handy little tip is to know the Greek name of a food you would like to try. Ask if they have fresh fagri (couch’s sea bream) for grilling instead of asking for red snapper (which doesn’t exist in the Mediterranean).
Take a look at some Greek cookbooks and write the names down of dishes you’d like to try. A local taverna might have a tourist clientele, but if you mention that you would really like to try the ahktapodi krassato (wine-braised octopus), I’m sure their eyes will light up. This is one of those dishes that will grow on you. Tourists tend to steer clear of octopus, but once you taste it you’ll be hard pressed not to order it at every meal. The authentic preparation results in a simple dish of octopus simmered in its own juices that is then cut into pieces and braised in red wine. Grilled octopus is so delicious that a friend of mine really did order it every day when he was in Greece.
And last, try visiting Mike Barrett’s “Travel Guide to Greece,” a friendly fellow who has been traveling or living in Greece since 1968 and has excellent restaurant suggestions and other travel tips.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese. Photos, from top:
Grilled octopus at the Epi Skinias taverna in Navplion.
The Acropolis in Athens.
Credits: Clifford A. Wright