Greeks love eating out, sharing impossibly big meals with family and friends in a drawn-out, convivial fashion. Whether you're eating seafood at a seaside table or sampling contemporary Greek cuisine under the floodlit Acropolis, dining out in Greece is never just about what you eat, but the whole sensory experience.
Like many Europeans, the Greeks dine late with some restaurants not opening for dinner until after 7pm. You will only need reservations in the most popular places and these can usually be made a day in advance.
- Taverna Informal and often specialising in seafood, chargrilled meat or traditional home-style baked dishes.
- Estiatorio More formal restaurant serving similar fare to tavernas or international cuisine.
- Mezedhopoleio Serves mezedhes (small plates); an ouzerie is similar but serves a round of ouzo with a round of mezedhes.
- Kafeneio One of Greece’s oldest traditions, serving coffee, spirits and little else.
Year in Food
Many olive-oil producers, wineries, agricultural cooperatives and cheesemakers are visitor-friendly year-round. Visit Athens' Central Market, Thessaloniki's Modiano Market and Hania's historic Agora anytime, or find rotating weekly farmers markets.
Artichokes and other fresh vegetables abound while cheesemaking kicks into gear. Easter is celebrated with tsoureki (brioche-style bread flavoured with mahlepi – mahaleb cherry kernels – and mastic) and dyed-red hard-boiled eggs.
Watermelon, cherries and other fruit jam-pack markets. In August, Skala Kaloni on Lesvos celebrates its sardine festival, while in the Peloponnese you can attend Leonidio's Aubergine Festival in the same month.
Nuts and figs are harvested and raki (Cretan firewater) is distilled. Aegina's pistachio industry celebrates Fistiki Fest mid-September. Raki or tsikoudia festivals are held in Voukolies and Cretan villages in November, when olive oil is produced.
Olive harvest peaks. Honey cookies are eaten at Christmas to end fasting. On New Year's Day, the golden-glazed cake vasilopita is shared.
Take a cue from the locals and go straight to the source, heading to seaside fishing hamlets for fresh fish or mountain villages for local meat. Seek out tavernas that produce their own vegetables, wine and oil, where the fried potatoes are hand-cut and recipes are passed down through generations.
- Souvlaki Greece’s favourite fast food, both the gyros (meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie) and skewered meat versions wrapped in pitta bread, with tomato, onion and lashings of tzatziki.
- Pies Bakeries make endless variations of tyropita (cheese pie) and spanakopita (spinach pie), plus other pies.
- Street food Includes koulouria (fresh pretzel-style bread) and seasonal snacks such as roasted chestnuts or corn.
Well-known Greece-based cooking writers and chefs run workshops on several islands and in Athens, mostly during spring and autumn.
- Glorious Greek Kitchen Cooking School (www.dianekochilas.com) Diane Kochilas runs week-long courses (from $3750) on her ancestral island, Ikaria, in spring and summer, as well as culinary tours to Athens, Nemea and Nafplion (from $1560).
- Kea Artisanal (www.aglaiakremezi.com/kea-artisanal) Aglaia Kremezi and her friends open their kitchens and gardens on the island of Kea for cooking workshops.
- Crete’s Culinary Sanctuaries (www.cookingincrete.com) Nikki Rose combines cooking classes, organic-farm tours and cultural excursions around Crete.
- The Greek Kitchen (www.greekkitchenathens.com) Runs half-day, hands-on cooking classes in Athens (adult/concession €59/29) as well as food tours of the city's main market.
Cook it at Home
Leave room in your baggage for local treats (customs and quarantine rules permitting) such as olives and extra virgin olive oil from small, organic producers; aromatic Greek thyme honey; dried oregano, mountain tea and camomile flowers; or a jar of spoon sweets (fruit preserves).
From cheese and olive oil to the raw ingredients on your plate, you will find many regional variations and specialities on your travels. Crete is a popular foodie destination with distinct culinary traditions, but the islands and mainland offer their own culinary treats. Be sure to ask about local dishes, cheese and produce.
- Northern Greece Influenced by eastern flavours, there's more butter, peppers and spices in this region's dishes, along with a strong mezes (small-plate) culture and Ottoman sweets.
- Peloponnese Known for its herb-rich, one-pot dishes and ladhera (vegetarian, peasant-style dishes).
- Cyclades A traditional reliance on beans and pulses led to the popularity of fava (split-pea puree) and revythadha (chickpea stew); you’ll also find spaghetti with lobster and a strong sausage tradition.
- Ionian Islands The Venetian influence is found in spicy braised beef, rooster pastitsadha (red-sauce pasta) and sofrito (braised veal with garlic and wine sauce).
- Crete Herb-rich dishes include anthoi (stuffed zucchini flowers), soupies (cuttlefish) with wild fennel and hohlioi bourbouristoi (snails with vinegar and rosemary).
How to Eat & Drink
Greece's relaxed and hospitable dining culture makes it easy to get into the local spirit.
When to Eat
Greece doesn't have a big breakfast tradition, unless you count coffee and a cigarette, and maybe a koulouria (pretzel-style bread) or tyropita (cheese pie) eaten on the run. You’ll find English-style breakfasts in hotels and tourist areas.
While changes in working hours are affecting traditional meal patterns, lunch is still usually the big meal of the day, starting around 2pm.
Greeks eat dinner late, rarely sitting down before sunset in summer. This coincides with shop closing hours, so restaurants often don't fill until after 10pm. Get in by 9pm to avoid the crowds. Given the long summers and mild winters, al fresco dining is central to the dining experience.
Most tavernas open all day, but some upmarket restaurants open for dinner only.
Where to Eat
Steer away from tourist restaurants and go where locals eat. As a general rule, avoid places on the main tourist drags, especially those with touts outside and big signs with photos of food. Be wary of hotel recommendations, as some have deals with particular restaurants.
Tavernas are casual, good-value, often family-run (and child-friendly) places, where the waiter arrives with a paper tablecloth and plonks cutlery on the table.
Don’t judge a place by its decor (or view). Go for places with a smaller selection (where food is more likely to be freshly cooked) rather than those with impossibly extensive menus.
- Taverna The classic Greek taverna has a few specialist variations – the psarotaverna (serving fish and seafood) and hasapotaverna or psistaria (for chargrilled or spit-roasted meat).
- Mayirio (cookhouse) Specialises in traditional one-pot stews and mayirefta (baked dishes).
- Estiatorio Serves upmarket international cuisine or Greek classics in a more formal setting.
- Mezedhopoleio Offers lots of mezedhes (small plates).
- Ouzerie In a similar vein to the mezedhopoleio, the ouzerie serves a usually free round of mezedhes with your ouzo. Regional variations focusing on the local firewater include the rakadhiko (serving raki) in Crete and the tsipouradhiko (serving tsipouro) in the mainland north.
Vegetarians are well catered for, since vegetables feature prominently in Greek cooking – a legacy of lean times and the Orthodox faith's fasting traditions. The more traditional a restaurant you go to, the more vegetable options you get, because they follow more of these fasting rules. If you come during Lent, it’s a vegan bonanza at these places.
Look for popular vegetable dishes such as fasolakia yiahni (braised green beans), bamies (okra), briam (oven-baked vegetable casserole) and vine-leaf dolmadhes. Of the nutritious horta (wild greens), vlita (amaranth) is the sweetest, but other common varieties include wild radish, dandelion, stinging nettle and sorrel.
Greece's religious and cultural celebrations inevitably involve a feast and many have their own culinary traditions.
The 40-day Lenten fast spawned nistisima, foods without meat or dairy (or oil if you go strictly by the book). Lenten sweets include halva, both the Macedonian-style version made from tahini (sold in delis) and the semolina dessert often served after a meal.
Red-dyed boiled Easter eggs decorate the tsoureki, a brioche-style bread flavoured with mahlepi (a species of cherry with very small fruit and kernels with an almond flavour) and mastic (the crystallised resin of the mastic tree). Saturday night's post-Resurrection Mass supper includes mayiritsa (offal soup), while Easter Sunday sees whole lambs cooking on spits all over the countryside.
A vasilopita (golden-glazed cake) is cut at midnight on New Year's Eve, giving good fortune to whoever gets the lucky coin inside.
Eating with Kids
Greeks love children and tavernas are very family-friendly. You may find children's menus in some tourist areas, but the Greek way of sharing dishes is a good way to feed the kids. Most tavernas will accommodate variations for children.
Etiquette & Table Manners
- Greek tavernas can be disarmingly and refreshingly laid-back. The dress code is generally casual, except in upmarket places.
- Service may feel slow (and patchy), but there's no rushing you out of there either.
- Tables generally aren't cleared until you ask for the bill, which in traditional places arrives with complimentary fruit or sweets or a shot of liquor. Receipts may be placed on the table at the start and during the meal in case tax inspectors visit.
- Greeks drink with meals (the drinking age is 16), but public drunkenness is uncommon and frowned upon.
- Book for upmarket restaurants, but reservations are unnecessary in most tavernas.
- Service charges are included in the bill, but most people leave a small tip or round up the bill; 10% to 15% is acceptable. If you want to split the bill, it's best you work it out among your group rather than ask the server to do it.
- Greeks are generous and proud hosts. Don't refuse a coffee or drink – it's a gesture of hospitality and goodwill. If you're invited out, the host normally pays. If you are invited to someone's home, it is polite to take a small gift (flowers or sweets), and remember to pace yourself, as you will be expected to eat everything on your plate.
- Smoking is banned in enclosed public spaces, including restaurants and cafes, but this rule is largely ignored, especially on distant islands.
- Menus with prices must be displayed outside restaurants. English menus are fairly standard but off the beaten track you may encounter Greek-only menus. Many places display big trays of the day’s mayirefta (ready-cooked meals) or encourage you to see what's cooking in the kitchen.
- Bread and occasionally small dips or nibbles are often served on arrival (you are increasingly given a choice as they are added to the bill).
- Don't stick to the three-course paradigm – locals often share a range of starters and mains (or starters can be the whole meal). Dishes may arrive in no particular order.
- Salads and other side dishes can be large – if you're a single diner, it's usually alright to ask for half portions.
- Frozen ingredients, especially seafood, are usually flagged on the menu (an asterisk or 'kat' on Greek menus).
- Fish is usually sold per kilogram rather than per portion, and is generally cooked whole rather than filleted. It's customary to go into the kitchen to select your fish (go for firm flesh and glistening eyes). Check the weight (raw) so there are no surprises on the bill.
The Greek Kitchen
The essence of traditional Greek cuisine lies in seasonal homegrown produce. Dishes are simply seasoned. Lemon juice, garlic, pungent Greek oregano and extra virgin olive oil are the quintessential flavours, along with tomato, parsley, dill, cinnamon and cloves.
- Mayirefta Home-style, one-pot, baked or casserole dishes. Prepared early, they are left to cool to enhance the flavours. Well-known mayirefta include mousaka (eggplant, minced meat, potatoes and cheese), yemista (vegetables stuffed with rice and herbs), lemonato (meat with lemon and oregano) and stifadho (sweet stewed meat with tomato and onion).
- Grills Greeks are masterful with grilled and spit-roasted meats. Souvlaki – arguably the national dish – comes in many forms, from cubes of grilled meat on a skewer to pitta-wrapped snacks with pork or chicken gyros done kebab-style on a rotisserie. Païdakia (lamb cutlets) and brizoles (pork chops) are also popular.
- Fish & seafood Fish is often grilled whole and drizzled with ladholemono (lemon and oil dressing). Smaller fish such as barbounia (red mullet) or maridha (whitebait) are lightly fried. Octopus is grilled, marinated or stewed in wine sauce. Popular seafood dishes include soupies (cuttlefish), calamari stuffed with cheese and herbs, and psarosoupa (fish soup). The best way to avoid imports is to seek out tavernas run by local fishing families.
- Mezedhes These small dishes (or appetisers) are often shared. Classics include tzatziki (yoghurt, cucumber and garlic), melidzanosalata (aubergine), taramasalata (fish roe), fava (split-pea puree with lemon juice) and saganaki (fried cheese). Also watch for keftedhes (meatballs), loukaniko (pork sausage), grilled gavros (white anchovies) and dolmadhes (rice wrapped in marinated vine leaves).
- Greek salad This ubiquitous salad (horiatiki or 'village salad') is made of tomatoes, cucumber, onions, feta and olives; however, it's often garnished with local greens, peppers, capers or nuts. Feta is sometimes replaced by a local cheese. Beetroot salad is also popular, often served with walnuts and cheese.
- Cheese Greece's regions produce many different types of cheese, most using goat's and sheep's milk, with infinite variations in taste. Apart from feta, local cheeses include graviera (a nutty, mild Gruyere-like sheep's-milk cheese), kaseri (similar to provolone), myzithra (ricotta-like whey cheese) and manouri (creamy soft cheese from the north).
Greece's national cheese has been produced for about 6000 years from sheep's and goat's milk. Only feta made in Greece can be called feta, an EU ruling giving it the same protected status as Parma ham and Champagne.
Greeks traditionally serve fruit rather than sweets after a meal, but there's no shortage of local sweets and cakes. Traditional sweets include baklava, loukoumadhes (spherical doughnuts drizzled with honey and cinnamon), kataïfi (chopped nuts inside angel-hair pastry), ryzogalo (rice pudding) and galaktoboureko (custard-filled pastry). Ghlika kutalyu (syrupy fruit preserves, also known as 'spoon sweets') are served on tiny plates as a welcome offering but are also eaten over yoghurt.