A Self-Guided Food Walk in Athens

A Self-Guided Food Walk in Athens

Just as many things in Greece, dining in Athens is very much laid-back with the majority of local eateries seeing patrons begin to congregate for dinner only after 8 pm. Eating-wise, the Athenians favor simplicity, leaning to the more casual and not so pricey tavernas where food is plentiful. To discover Athens' true take on the Greek food in its variety, we invite you on this walk to wander the streets of the world's oldest democracy. En route, you may yield to the temptation of a large sesame koulouri bread or souvlaki (skewered pork, tomato, red pepper, onion and parsley) wrapped in a pita bread which is dryer and thicker than its Arabic counterpart. On this quest of the authentic Greek fare we will steer clear of the flashy joints at prime locations, but will head for the less fancy looking spots, away from the trodden tourist paths, where customers come not for the appearance, but for the food and food only!

1. Athens Central Market (Varvakeios, or Dimotiki Agora)

Athens Central Market (Varvakeios, or Dimotiki Agora)
Image Courtesy of: Dimorsitanos
There's no better point to start a gastronomic walk of Athens than Varvakeios, the city's central market, also known as Dimotiki Agora or Nea Agora. Bordered by Evripidou, Eolou and Sofokleous streets, this market straddles the busy Athinas street and comprises two main sections: a 19th-century iron-and-glass complex for meat, fish and seafood on the one side, and an open-air part for vegetables and fruits on the other. Remarkably clean (in line with the EU sanitary regulations), this massive emporium features immaculate butchery work and great deals on meat, including some truly weird animals also available during a season, plus a wealth of fruits of the sea with some of the biggest prawns ever to be seen (note the amount of water usually present on the floor, requiring more than just a pair of flip flops), and the most colorful fruits (giant lemons, peaches and more). Smaller alleys extending from each section host an array of stalls and shops offering a multitude of local products (canned and dry) and delicacies, as well as a number of no-name cafes and taverns commonly referred to as the “working class restaurants” for their unpretentious yet very fresh, traditional food. Varvakeios is undoubtedly one the best places in town for authentic Greek lunches, local food specialties, and edible souvenirs such as fresh olives (many olive vendors here have vacuum-seal equipment, so you can easily take your purchase back home), feta cheeses (made from sheep's, goat's, or cow's milk, varying in texture from the young cottage-cheese-like to the aged hard, granular kind, and ultimately, kefalotyri – hard, salty sheep’s milk cheese), and herbs. A truly incredible introduction to the Balkan market culture!
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You can carry this article in your mobile device to read offline and create a self-guided walk to visit the venues featured herein with the GPSmyCity App (available on iTunes App Store or Google Play Store).

2. Eateries in and around Central Market

Eateries in and around Central Market
Image Courtesy of: Ken Mayer
It is best to embark on this walk on an empty stomach so as to fully appreciate the delights of the “working class restaurants” and fast food eateries situated around and beneath (literally, in the basement of) the Varvakeios market where wine appears on your table before and regardless of whether you order it or not, and the menu is all in the head of a waiter (alternatively, you can order stuff by simply nodding at a guy next table, in case you want something s/he is having). All these spots are inexpensive and deprived of touristy gloss, but you will feel there at home the moment you try their staple roast lamb and potatoes, fricassee, bean soup, or podi, the soup made from the foot of a cow which does contain the actual foot of a cow.

- Diporto (Δίπορτο)
One of the prime eateries at Varvakeios worth checking out is called Diporto which loosely translates to “two doors.” By no means a tourist trap, this joint sits at the very heart of the action, hidden in a cellar right beneath the vegetable market, so you may easily miss it if you don’t look hard. This underground location has about 20 seats and is a great place for hearty dishes like soups, stews and grilled fish. Their menu changes daily depending on market availability, which in turn makes each meal here a bit of a surprise.

Tip: Although Varvakeios operates from early morning (7 am) until late in the afternoon, Monday to Saturday, it is still best to do your shopping here first prior to setting out to dine at Diporto or Epirus, as many of the market stalls and nearby shops wrap up for the day at about 3 pm. After eating there, it may well be a good idea to take a stroll to the nearby patisserie Krivos (at Aiolou 87, outside the market) and treat yourself to some of their loukoumades for dessert.

- Epirus Tavern (Οινομαγειρείο Η Ήπειρος)
Epirus is a great option for those keen on a casual, cafeteria-style lunch or even breakfast. A good alternative for the days when grandma’s cooking beats souvlaki hands down. Not that there’s anything wrong with souvlaki, but you will seriously be surprised at how good a bowl of fish soup or patsa (tripe soup) will make you feel early in the morning, especially after a wild night out on the town. No eggs-over-easy or any eggs, for that matter, can do such a miracle curing hangover or indigestion.

- Krinos (Κρίνος)
Nothing fancy in appearance, looking more like an ordinary cafeteria, this shop is all about loukoumades – one of the most ancient Greek desserts (rounds of dough soaked in orange blossom honey and sprinkled with cinnamon) similar in texture to the American donut but predating it by hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Still very much modern, and just as addictive, these sweet bites are a definite must try when in Athens. Krinos produces them since 1923 and is the place to eat “real McCoy” loukoumades for sure. Although it opens at 7 am, you shouldn't really burst buttocks trying to get here so early for the freshest dose of loukoumades, as they don't usually appear for another one and half hours.
Offline reading and travel directions:
You can carry this article in your mobile device to read offline and create a self-guided walk to visit the venues featured herein with the GPSmyCity App (available on iTunes App Store or Google Play Store).

3. Evripidou Street Market

Evripidou Street Market
Image Courtesy of: Palickap
As we depart from Krinos, you may pick up the exotic, rich scents wafting from the nearby Evripidou street (just a block away) which will take you to yet another colorful location on the food map of Athens, the Evripidou Street Market. This street itself is split into sections, each with its own specialty: fresh fruits and veggies; dried fruits and nuts; dairy products (Greek yogurt and feta cheese); and spices and herbs. There is no shortage of what you can find here, really!

- One of the shops particularly worth checking out in Evripidou is Elixir where, apart from other herbs and condiments, you will find spatholatho, the ointment originated in the island of Kea, once used by the ancient Greek warriors to heal their wounds.

- Sitting next door is the Armenian butchery, Arapian, selling marvelous sausages, pastourma and souzouk, along with other meats.

- In continuation of the meat theme, there is another shop further next door, also owned by Greek Armenians, called Miran. A true heaven for cold cut lovers, this place has been curing meats and cheeses since 1922, producing around 30 types of salami, pastourma, souzouk (their specialty!) and other spicy treats richly flavored with cumin, garlic and paprika. They also sell exotic spices, like the green garlic powder, at €200 per kilo! Despite the strong flavor, this powder doesn’t cause bad breath, so it's safe to buy a small bag, as a gift, that will last long.
Offline reading and travel directions:
You can carry this article in your mobile device to read offline and create a self-guided walk to visit the venues featured herein with the GPSmyCity App (available on iTunes App Store or Google Play Store).

4. Psyrri Neighborhood

Psyrri Neighborhood
Image Courtesy of: Palickap
Psirri is a happening arty and bohemian neighborhood nestled between Athinas shopping area, Monastiraki and Agion Asomaton (Thissio) squares. Once working-class-industrial district turned scaled down version of NYC Soho mixed up with the East Village, today's Psirri is an entertainment mecca renowned for its cool, relaxed vibe, but just as importantly for its vibrant food scene manifested in the myriad of small newly-opened cafes coexisting harmoniously with the unpretentious 50-year-old taverns, ouzerie-mezedopouleon-style eateries (the Greek version of tapas bars, reminiscent of a luncheonette from a 1960s movie) tucked away in the winding streets and smaller alleyways. Situated right next to the picturesque yet overwhelmingly touristy Plaka district, Psirri charges just a fraction of its prices, for which it is much loved by the local students and other hip, young and restless flocking here in droves for cheap nights out. Overall, the area resembles a theatrical show, where each person is an actor, seemingly casual while fully, if not say – happily, dedicated to their part. To share the mood of the crowd and to follow their rhythm, it is best to park yourself at one of the tables and chairs outside the many bars and coffee shops and enjoy some of their freshly made delights, heavenly delicious, served in killer portions.

- Agia Anargiron street
Heading towards Plateia Iroon via Agia Anargiron street, we pass through a somewhat tranquil zone replete with small cafes, all with free Wi-Fi, ideal for a quiet breakfast or just sitting out reading news or checking e-mails. The farther we go up the street, the closer we get to the main drag and the louder and higher key it becomes.

- Nikitas
Down the road, opposite the church, we find Nikitas psitopolío which is, in fact, a typical Athens oinomayerio with several dishes of the day readily available (e.g. biftekia, eggplant, etc.), friendly ambiance, and affordable prices – one of the last remaining establishments of this kind in Psyrri. In good weather, their outdoor tables are all taken. The place is open all day long till the evening.
At the very end of Agia Anargiron, we bump into another popular location – Pame Psiri restaurant – renowned for its live laika and rembetika shows.

- Oinopoleion
Finally in Plateia Iroon, about 30 meters away from the square, at Eschilou 12a, there's a spot called Oinopouleion, owned by Markos Winery, offering a tremendous choice of bottled and barrel wines including Retsina, most recommended accompaniment for their meat platter.

5. Monastiraki Square Area

Monastiraki Square Area
Image Courtesy of: Barcex
A meeting point for locals and tourists alike, Monastiraki square deserves to be visited, if only for a few minutes, to soak up the lively and often festive atmosphere, that is as Greek as it possibly gets, and perhaps try some of the local street snacks, like “koulouri” (a bagel-like roll sprinkled with sesame seeds). The adjacent flea market offers a choice of goods that may rival the Grand Bazaar of Constantinople itself, while the neighboring streets host a cluster of shops, taverns, bistros and coffee/tea houses luring visitors with a chance of a pleasant break.

- Sitting on the opposite side of Monastiraki, at the entrance to Mitropoleos Square, is a famous kebab joint Savvas, the first ever kebab shop opened in Athens. It is run by the Armenian family who, along with other Armenians, fled Turkey in the 1920s bringing along their kebab culture and instilling it here. Primarily, the Armenians specialize in the preparation of "lahmacun" (a pie stuffed with a mix of ground beef, tomato, parsley and spices) and pastrami

- Café Avissinia, located in the eponymous Avissinia Square, is the only establishment around Monastiraki where antiques are not for sale but form part of the interior. More than just an eatery or a watering hole, this tavern is a manifestation of Greek philosophy and culture. Opened back in 1986 as a small tea house, today Avissinia is a classic haunt offering a choice of Greek delicacies, raki, ouzo, wines and, most notably, live accordion music to delight the multiple clientele!

6. Adrianou Street

Adrianou Street
Image Courtesy of: Palickap
Just a short stroll from Avissinia cafe is Adrianou street, the bustling thoroughfare of Plaka neighborhood. Although heavily commercialized these days, the street does retain the feel of old Athens all the same. In fact, there are two parts of Adrianou quite different from one another: the upper part – Adrianou Ano Plaka – stretches right in front of the Agora (Acropolis) complex; and the lower – Kato Plaka – lies between Syntagma and Monastiraki. The former section is densely packed with sidewalk cafes, taverns and restaurants offering visitors, apart from decent food and coffee, an excellent view over the Acropolis plus a vantage point for crowd watching and, of course, some gossiping too (just as the Athenians do – espresso in one hand, pastry/cigarette in the other). In addition to the magnificent (especially at night) views of the ancient ruins and the ever-present cool breeze, this place will greet you with a friendly service while you enjoy your refreshment and light meal.

7. Anafiotika

Anafiotika
Image Courtesy of: Dawags
The tiny scenic district Anafiotika, part of the historic Plaka neighborhood, lying at the foot of the Acropolis hill, on its northeastern side. Seemingly time-forgotten in the shadow of Greece's most glorious landmark, Anafiotika is poetically referred to as a “breeze of the Aegean” in the heart of Athens.

- Plaka Steps in Anafiotica
Recently renovated, the area abounds in small cafes, bars and restaurants scattered on the slopes of the Acropolis within Mnisikleous pedestrian street and nearby. Because of the hilly landscape, this pedestrian street is made in the form of steps lined up with cafes on both sides, with seating arranged creatively (and often compactly, too) along the steps. All this lively commotion resounding with music and happy voices of the folk passing by, eating, lounging around or chatting over a drink contributes to a very unique dining atmosphere observed from the early lunch on through the evening.

8. Plaka

Plaka
Image Courtesy of: michael clarke stuff
Plaka is a popular neighborhood, perfect for a leisurely stroll and gift shopping (thanks to the numerous boutiques selling traditional feta, honey, olive oils, ouzo and tsipouro), but just as good for eating out. Although considered a center-most area of Athens, Plaka does have a number of quiet and cute nooks and corners with character, where one can escape the noise of a crowd. Sitting out at picturesque cafes and tavernas, observing old-time architecture with magenta-bougainvillea-adorned balconies, you will inevitably feel the taste of a very different Athens.

- Taverna O Psaras
The Athenians love Taverna O Psaras for their authentic Greek food served since 1898. Started off as a “hole-in-the-wall” fish restaurant, over the years it has evolved into a popular place with a menu and location expanded far beyond its original, taking up several adjacent buildings and the little square in front. Although a bit more high-end than before, the place is still inexpensive and the atmosphere is just as cordial. The restaurant is somewhat hard to find though, which only helps to uphold its “non-touristy” status.

- Byzantino Taverna-Restaurant
Byzantino Taverna is one of the firm favorites among the locals. Although hardly distinguishable, on the outside, from other tourist-infested outlets, this restaurant, in addition to their great location (cute little park on Kydatheneon street), does offer some truly delicious and reasonably priced food complete with a friendly and gracious service, attesting to which is the steady inflow of Greeks coming here regularly. Definitely NOT a tourist trap!

9. Food Mapping and Tips:

Food Mapping and Tips:
1. Although the central market officially operates till late afternoon, Monday through Saturday, it is best to come here shopping before noon, as many of the stalls and surrounding outlets close around 3 pm.

2. Quite a few pastry shops in Athens open up pretty early (7 am), but the freshly-made pastry don't usually appear for another one and a half hours, so rushing there for the opening is hardly a good idea.

3. Olive-, meat- and other vendors at Varvakeios and Evripidou markets are equipped to vacuum-seal your purchase, so you can conveniently take it back home as souvenirs.

4. The only kosher restaurant in Athens – Gostijo, located in Psyrri – is your chance to explore the “journey of transformation”, with Mediterranean flavor, of the Sefardi Jews culinary tradition.
5. Consider Psirri above all other options for a quality authentic food and drink at reasonable prices amid the locals!

6. Up for a meal with a stunning view? Go to Adrianou and grab a seat there at one of the dozens of cafes lining the street...

7. For a truly unique eating out experience, be it early lunch or late night breakfast, head for Anafiotika. The pedestrian area of Mnisikleous and the vicinity abound in action and places to grab a bite.
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