The food of Greece is known the world over. Being at the crossroads between east and west, Greek cuisine has been infused with the best of both worlds. Some of the most eclectic tastes from the west balance against some of the more upbeat tastes from the east on Greek tables.
Perhaps it would be best if we started this topic by answering the question, “what do Greeks eat?” The answer of course would be: Greek food!
The main ingredient you will probably find in just about every Greek dish is olive oil. Olive oil is the energy food that fueled a splendid civilization in ancient times, and the one item that every Greek home cannot be without.
Even though consumption of olive oil has declined over the years, you will find at least a five gallon container of olive oil in the vast majority of homes, most of which comes not from from a store but from a known source, an own olive tree, or a friend.
Greeks have a very refined taste of olive oil, and would prefer to buy their annual supply directly from the farmers.
With millions of olive trees dotting the Greek landscape, every inhabitant of the country has their own, or at least know of someone who could supply them with the bulk of their oil needs.
Other major ingredients include liberal use of lemon juice, pepper, oregano, garlic, and tomatoes in different iterations (fresh, peeled, paste, etc.).
In terms of meat, while most would associate sheep and goat as the main consumed products, according to a study by the Agricultural University of Athens (link) “pork holds first place among consumers’ preferences, covering 35.6% of total consumption, poultry covers 21.7%, bovine meat covers 20.3%, and goat and sheep meat cover 14.8%.”
Rice, pasta, and potatoes are also found in many Greek dishes.
What to Eat in Greece
Every table in the summer would include a communal plate of Greek salad. You meals most likely include a plate too.
Since the country is a major exporter of fruits and vegetables chances are good that your salad would be made with fresh, and very tasty ingredients.
Authentic Greek salad is made with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and feta cheese as the main ingredients. The salad dressing is a simple mixture of olive oil and vinegar.
You will find variations on the theme in different locations with other simple vegetables or garnish added to these, such as capers, basil, or other varieties of cheese.
Restaurants that cater mostly to tourists serve a “greek salad” that is mostly lettuce. Nothing wrong with it, but if you want the authentic taste make sure you order a “village salad” (horiátiki).
With so much sea shore surrounding the land and the islands, fresh fish of any kind (you can ask to see the fish before it is cooked) would be an excellent choice, albeit a pricey one.
Other visitors’ favorites include Kalamari= squid (fried or sautéed with onions and red wine) and the famous abroad Gyros (gee’ros.) As you will find out not all gyros are created equal, ask the locals for the best restaurant, or look for the establishment that is full of locals.
While many non-Greeks frown at the idea of eating Octopus, those who do try it find its taste unique and very agreeable. It can be cooked grilled on charcoal with lemon, boiled, or prepared into a cold salad.
Similarly, squid (Kalamari), and Cattlefish (Soupia) offer a unique taste and texture either served on their own, stuffed with cheese, or mixed with pasta.
You can eat all three of the above either as a meal, as an appetizer, or as “mezedes” (tappas) accompanying ouzo and white wine.
You can find individual Spinach Pies (spanakopita), and Cheese Pie (Tyropita) in fast-food joints around every town in Greece, and they are ideal for a quick breakfast or snack on-the-go.
You can also eat them as appetizers with either lunch or dinner, but home-made pies have a richer taste and are hearty enough to have as a main course.
Greece is a fruit-producing country. In the summer you can indulge in fresh melons, peaches, apricots, and the ubiquitous watermelons.
On the rural roads in Greece you will see little kiosks where the farmers sell produce and fresh fruits. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to buy some fresh fruit if you pass one.
Although one can find different ethnic foods in Athens, the great majority of restaurants in Greece serve only one variety of food: Greek food!
To most people who consider “variety” to come from different types of cuisines this might sound rather monotonous, but Greek food comes in many shapes, forms, and varieties to keep even the most demanding traveler satisfied.
Restaurants in Greece come in many different sizes and varieties as well. There are the “touristy” restaurants that would normally serve what travelers most often desire, and there are restaurants that cater exclusively to tourists .
If you visit Greece as part of a tour group, chances are that you will mostly frequent such establishments. The food quality and service in both cases is exceptional, and the restaurants themselves are very clean.
You normally find them in or around the most touristy spots of Greece (like Olympia) and the tour buses automatically unload their passengers at such restaurants before or after a visit to a major archaeological site.
The prices vary but as a rule they are high, although they are often included in the tour price for a substantial discount.
There are also restaurants that cater mostly to tourists away from archaeological sites. They are located in the busiest parts of town, such as the waterfront of most coastal towns and islands.
They also exhibit exceptional service, delicious food, and moderate to high prices. In fact, the closer you get to the waterfront, the higher the prices seem to climb.
But there is no price too high to pay for a late dinner right next to the slithering reflections of the moon over the gentle waves.
A little farther wandering around the narrow streets of most cities will reveal the places that the locals frequent.
Although there is no written rule that establishes such restaurants as better than others, a little exploration might reward the visitor with a restaurant that offers great Greek food at great prices, and in an authentic local atmosphere.
An option worth checking out if you are budget conscious, or if you plan to stay in one place for a long time.
Restaurants are most often referred to as “Tavernas” of “Fish Tavernas” (Psarotaverna) if the main focus on the menu is seafood.
What’s on the Menu
Every restaurant in Greece is obligated by law to exhibit the menu with prices by the entrance.
This way you can stroll down a street, and browse at all the menus and prices before you make a decision to enter a certain restaurant.
Often, there is a waiter by the door that will politely (and sometimes insistently) try to entice you to enter their restaurant.
While the menus exhibit all the current prices, you might notice next to certain items the notation “current market value” instead of a price. Items such as fresh seafood are almost impossible to determine a set price for the menu.
Once inside the restaurant the waiter will make sure that you are informed of all the available fresh fish varieties , and will display the fish for you to make a choice. It is wise to make sure that you are at least verbally informed of the price of the fish you choose before it is cooked.
Most everything on a Greek taverna menu is straight forward. You may choose from a great variety of Greek delicacies like Pasticcio, Mousaka, or giuvetsi, or from a variety of pasta dishes.
Greeks often ignore menu items when ordering and instead they custom order their own plates and most often order much more food than is possible to consume!
The Taverna Atmosphere
Greek dinner starts sometime around 10:00 PM and ends sometime after 1:00 or two AM!
The atmosphere of most tavernas (especially the ones the locals frequent) is festive into the wee hours of the morning with loud conversations which relegate the Greek music to a background role. The tables are usually spread outside, under a porch.
Greek tavernas can be chaotic with children running everywhere, cigarette smoke mixed with the aromas of tasty dishes, and small cats under tables in search of scraps. All happening in the background as beer and wine flows happily from glass to mouth.
You will be amazed to see that on most nights, every taverna in every Greek town is packed with people!
Greeks don’t wait for the weekend to go out. Usually, after a good meal they enjoy a few more hours of conversation and drinks at the table, or at a nearby cafeteria, or bar.
It goes without saying that there is no closing hour established for restaurants, bars, cafeterias and night clubs.
About fifteen years ago the government almost toppled when they tried to establish a 4:00 AM closing time for night clubs! No government has since attempted the same feat.
Fast and Finger Food in Greece
Souvlaki and Gyros
Many small tavernas offer a very limited menu of souvlaki, french fries, salad, pita bread, and tzatziki. The prices are usually low and the atmosphere and service is genuine and authentic.
Traditional Greek “Fast Food” includes the “souvlaki” and the “gyro”. Two terms that are interchangeable and can refer to two different things depending on the town, restaurant, or waiter!
Traditionally, souvlaki refers to shiskebab (pieces of pork, and less often, beef cubes grilled on a stick) but many times it refers to gyros (the assortment of minced meat, tomatoes, onions, and tzatziki, wrapped in pita bread).
So you run the risk when ordering a souvlaki (the shiskebab) to find that you really ordered a Gyros sandwich and vice versa.
To make matters even more confusing, you can order a Gyro sandwich with a souvlaki, gyro meat, or chicken!
Often times the souvlaki is referred to as “kalamaki” which means “skewer”, and the Gyros sandwich is simply called a “pita-gyro”, or “pita” for short.
The gyros sandwich is a very versatile food.
Depending on the restaurant it usually has a few standard ingredients: meat, tomatoes, onions, pita, tzatziki, and a great deal of spices (salt, black and red pepper).
Many times these ingredients are supplemented with french fries, and ketchup or even mustard.
You can customize your own Gyros sandwich at the time you order. Specify whether you want any of the above omitted, or by adding anything else that might enhance the taste.
You can even order your Gyros wrapped in double pita bread. This is more filling without too much extra expense.
If you prefer a “vegetarian” gyros, order one without meat. Some restaurants substitute other items, like hummus, for meat.
The meat that goes in the Gyros sandwich consists of several choices.
The traditional “Gyros” meat that gives the name to the food consists of minced pork slowly roasted by turning around on a vertical spit (gyros in Greek means “something that goes around”).
You may also have your sandwich made with the “souvlaki” meat (without the stick of course) which is made of grilled pork cubes. In this case you would order your gyro sanwich “me kalamaki”.
There is also a third choice of meat called the “bifteki”. It is a sort of burger made of a variety of minced meats and grilled around a stick like the “souvlaki”.
If you prefer white meat, many restaurants offer their gyros sandwich with chicken.
Usually the gyros sandwich comes wrapped in a piece of paper and napkin to be eaten without utensils, but you can opt for a “merida” which is the same food served open on a plate with a few extra (or more) ingredients.
A “merida” of gyros contains almost double the ingredients than a gyro sandwich, and is considerably more expensive than the sandwich so make sure you order the right thing.
Tavernas that offer gyros and souvlaki are inexpensive and offer the food as a take-out option something most Greeks take advantage off.
They also have seating that varies from a bar stool to a full set of outdoor tables. During our travels we always find a nice souvlaki place in a central square or by the waterfront. The food is good, the atmosphere genuine, and the price is always right.
Greek Fast Food
Greek fast food includes a variety of pies and food that can be eaten on the run. There are many small stores specializing in selling fresh individual-size cheese pies, spinach pies, and “bougatsa”.
They are inexpensive (about 1.40 – 2.00 €). There are so many people eating them, it seems as if cheese pies are the favorite fast food in Greece. Greeks usually eat them between meals, but they are rich enough to be substitute lunch and they certainly make a good breakfast.
Popular chains bake their cheesepies constantly up to the late afternoon hours, but most get their supplies in the morning so you run the risk of getting a stale one after 1:00 o’clock.
For a different kind of fast food (and less expensive) you can visit the local “tostadiko”.
They are usually small establishments that offer “tost” (or toast) in a variety of customized ways. You can make up your own toasted sandwich on the spot.
The term “toast” in Greece refers to what is known in the USA as a grilled sandwich.
Greeks have a habit of eating fresh baked bread with every meal, and square pieces of bread that have been sitting at the super market shelf for some time are not very popular.
If you order a “toast” you will most likely get a grilled cheese sandwich often with ham (even at 8:00 AM). Specifying that you only want the bread toasted with nothing one, or inside might win you a few curious looks.
If you wish to spread marmalade on something tasty opt for fresh baked bread of which you can find plenty in Greece.
Fast Food Franchises in Greece
“Goodies” is by far the largest fast food chain in Greece and you will find a Goodies and you don’t have to try too hard to also find the typical western fast food restaurants everywhere in Greece.
McDonalds and KFC have restaurants in every large town in Greece.
The menus of the Greek Mc Donald’s and KFC are vastly different from their American counterparts and you can order beer with your meal.
The menus usually include local delicacies (such as octopus and squid) and full dishes of pasta. Since the service and food are vastly expanded the prices of these fast food restaurants are high as well.