Greece, June 2010
The Hotel Esperia Royal (Best Western) is in Syntagma, an area centrally located between touristy Plaka to the south (where the Acropolis is located), posh Kolonaki to the east (near the British Council where I was working) and Exarchia, the ‘anarchist’ and student area to the north. All are within walking distance.
It’s a comfortable hotel with fairly large rooms and a decent breakfast buffet. Mary at the BC tells me the restaurant has a good rep but I didn’t try it. Although free wi-fi is advertised as being available in the ground floor bar and restaurant, I was still able to get it on the 7th floor.
Lots of homeless people on the streets here. Bag up your useless hotel toiletries and teabags and give them to someone who could use them.
Directly over the road from the hotel is the bank where two bank workers died in a fire during the riots of April 2010. The pavement outside has become a shrine to their memory with piles of flowers, toys, cards and candles at night. A tragic reminder of the strife currently afflicting Greek society.
Most of the places below were gleaned from Lonely Planet, in particular their favourite picks. Generally I found the best food to be in the cheapest places but others are good for their ambience and/or location. White wine is usually pretty good wherever you go but red can be variable.
EATING PLACES NEAR THE HOTEL
If you feel the need to eat outside normal restaurant hours you can eat at one of the tavernas in the central market on Athenas St. They are open 24 hours a day from Monday to Saturday. The food is great, as you would expect, and very cheap. Please see below for more info.
Paradosiako, (Elementary B), 44a Voulis (parallel to Stadiou)
On a budget? This rough and ready place has a good basic menu with daily specials. I had greek salad, grilled squid, a plate of rice, half a litre of white and a bowl of watermelon chunks for €19. On another night the meatballs with rice were very good. The service may seem brusque at first but that’s because they are always very busy, they’re nice guys really. If you ask for a shot of tsipouro (similar to grappa) to finish it will be on the house. Open for Sunday lunch but get there early before the locals, and the French, take all the seats.
Filema (Elementary B), 16 Romvis
Located on a narrow, car-free street relatively near the hotel, this is a popular mezedhopoleio (restaurant specialising in mezedes or small plates of appetisers) with two shop fronts on opposite sides of the street. I should have tried to order half portions as all the dishes were enough for two, much to the satisfaction of Leila, the house dog, who ate more of it than I did. I got Politiki (cabbage salad) (B-), Keftedhes (meatballs) (C), Tigania (chunks of pork fried with onion and wine and sprinkled with oregano) (B) and a half litre of house white for under €30 , which also included a complementary cheesecake (C) with strawberries (B) and a Mastiha (a sweet liqueur from Chios which seems to be the default digestif). It was ok but there are other places I would rather try in the future. There’s a nice bar right next door.
Doris (Intermediate ?), 30 Praxitelous, opens 9pm, closed Sunday.
Just round the corner from the hotel, I really wanted to eat here but never got the chance as it was shut on my day off (Sunday) and closed at 6.30pm on the days I was working. LP says it has a basic menu with lots of daily specials, including seafood. An Athenian institution since 1947.
If you turn left out of the hotel and take first right (or walk up the hill from Doris) you will come to a lively area with lots of bars. I had trouble getting a decent Cuba Libre but eventually found a posh looking place which did a big one with lots of fresh lime, so I had two. The shock came when the €24 bill arrived! Quite a surprise given that one had only cost €4.50 in a neighbouring bar. On another night I was lured into the Seven Jokers (7 Voulis) by the great sound system which was playing heavy vibes in a Dub Syndicate style but was charged €7 for a mastiha, albeit a double. Drinking isn’t cheap in this town.
My local contacts tell me they often come to this area to eat out cheaply. It makes for an interesting walk with riot police on standby on many of the peripheral neighbourhood corners and gangs of fly posting politicos wallpapering the streets. I counted twelve revolutionary newspapers in one newsagent. For drinks you could rub shoulders with the students and nihilists on graffiti daubed Mesolongiou St or go to the more salubrious Plateia Exarhion, a pleasant square with more nice-looking bars. Valtetsiou St leading to the square has lots of picturesque restaurants including…
Yiantes (Intermediate B), 44 Valtetsiou, Tel. 210 3301369
A modern tavern with most of its tables in an open air courtyard, I was lucky to get in without a reservation at 9pm as it was packed out with large family groups (kids running everywhere) but these had all left by 10. It’s known for good quality organic food. The welcome dish of chopped tomato with oil, garlic, parsley and bread baked in the shape of muffins were delicious (A) and the roast onions stuffed with mince, raisins and pine nuts were pretty good although the portion was huge and I got a bit bored of it by the end (B-). Sadly my rather boring choice of Souvlaki (grilled chunks of lamb grilled on a skewer) with chips (C) required a heavy sprinkling of a salt, alghough the accompanying yougurt sauce was nice (B). The organic house white Moskofilero (B), and a complimentary Mastiha on ice made up for things though. The bill was a reasonable €27.50. Would definitely go again but need to make better choices next time.
Cafe Avyssinia, (Intermediate B), 7 Kynetou, Plateia Avyssinia, Tel. 210 32 17 047, closed Mondays
This beautiful place, located in the grungy flea market, is pretty hard to find but if you walk down Ermou (main shopping st, including M&S) and when you get to 102 turn left and you will be in Plateia Avyssinia, it’s on the left. Perhaps because of its inaccessibility it was easy to get a table on Saturday night when I went, when other places nearby where heaving. Decorated in an Art Nouveau style with stained glass, ceramic tiles, warm floral wallpaper, marble topped tables and lots of wooden fittings, it’s hard to believe that this place is only 30 years old. It specialises in regional dishes which if I’m honest were pretty challenging for my uninitiated palate (my first time in Greece). Fava puree isn’t really my thing though it tasted much better in combination with raw red onion and some great capers. Likewise the chunks of veal in tomato sauce were good but I wasn’t too keen on the spearmint in the accompanying aubergine puree. The dessert was strained yogurt, Thracian style ie topped with honey, nuts and raisins (easy to make at home). I also needed to try the Retsina white (no house wine here), an ancient wine made from the Savatiano grape with the addition of Aticca pine resin. My dessert wine Muscat de Lemnos (muscat of Alexandria) was sublime however and the complimentary raki (Cretan grappa) sent me home with a wobble and a smile. Really liked their soundtrack too, Mi Gustas by Manu Chao and Carlos Jobim’s Girl from Ipanema being just a couple of the great tracks they played. Would deffo go back but make different choices next time.
Filistron (Intermediate B), 23 Apostolou Pavlou, Tel. 210 346 7554
This is the place to take your partner if they come to stay. A popular terrace with great views of the Acropolis, very romantic at night. Probably best to reserve as it’s a popular spot on a very busy strip. Get a seat at the edge to avoid being bumped by the waiters. Regional specialities dominate the menu. I had the spicy cheese salad which was really just cheese sauce but it went nicely with their bread. The baked onions stuffed with mince and rice were nice too but I would probably choose different things next time. With wine and dessert the bill came to €37. You’re paying for the view rather than the food. Lots of cool bars nearby too eg Stavlos at 10 Iraklidon has a nice courtyard with live music.
Oikeo (Intermediate B-), 15 Ploutarhou (corner with Alopekis), Tel. 210 725 9216
A bit of a trek from the hotel however it was the only place I wanted to go to that was open on a Monday, which is generally a bad day for eating out. A modern taverna, Oikeo earns its name (homey) by its warm decoration, rustic fittings, candlelit tables and soft background jazz. I could have sat on the street but the pollution was stinging my mouth and eyes that day so I opted for the cool interior. My starter of grilled feta rolled in sesame seeds was interesting at first but I was tired of it by the last mouthful (C+). For the main I went for grilled liver but had to send it back as it was overdone. The next attempt was better but still not rare as I had requested (B-) although the chips were good (B). The house red was fairly drinkable (C+). To finish, lemon mousse (B) and a shot glass of Mastiha which I again sent back to be put in a brandy glass with lots of ice (it should always be served chilled). The bill came to a reasonable €31, given the area, and I would probably go again if I was hungry and nearby. Think the staff was glad to see the back of me, although the manager was very considerate.
Just down the hill on the same street as Oikeo on the left is a bar called Mai Tai where you can sit outside. I ordered a seven star Metaxa but made them pour their miserly shot back into the glass when I got a bill for €10. The high prices are probably due to the owner’s botox injections and her pout as I walked out looked like two fat slugs daubed in lipstick. I walked ten blocks to Exarchia and had a double five star brandy with the anarchists for half the price.
ATHENS CENTRAL MARKETS
Did my touristic duty and climbed the hill to see the Acropolis and the stunning views of the city and sea. Once you’re down the bottom again it’s a straight walk to the place I wanted to go to the most, Athens central market on Athinas St. The meat market is not for the faint hearted with pigs heads, knots of hanging entrails, skinned rabbits with their bob tails still on and bellowing traders who shout in your face. Besides lots of gruesome photo ops, the main reason to be here is to go to one of the market tavernas for top quality fresh food at a knock down price. After a couple of walk bys I opted for H HNEIPOE (Elementary A) GEM ALERT!, due to its red table clothes, homely canteen feel, and Tesos the friendly English speaking waiter who was fishing for early lunch customers outside. You will recognise him from his greying moustache and cheeky grin. He’s a good man, do as he says.
I wanted to try patsas (tripe soup) which is good for hangovers and indeed it did my head no end of good after too much Metaxa brandy the night before. It’s quite a thick soup with the cow’s stomach cut into tiny slivers, simmered in stock and served with pungent garlic-steeped vinegar and a sprinkling of peperoncino if you want some heat. I have little experience of tripe but this was delicious, the taste for me being reminiscent of Knorr Chicken Noodle soup (a childhood favourite) for some reason. For a second dish I had rice (a bit overcooked) and liver which looked well done on the outside but still retained some tenderness. Seeing me take pictures of the food the chef invited me behind the counter so I could snap the contents of the twenty or so cauldrons and bain mairies, some of which I recognised (dolmades, orzo in tomato sauce, meatballs, cow foot soup) and many I didn’t. It’s not all offal here by any means but if you like that kind of thing this is the place for you.
Washed it down with half a litre (miso kilo) of house white and a glass of ouzo to go with my complimentary fingers of halva and baklava. Best of all for me you could have a contented fag afterwards, although the manageress told me that this will no longer be possible when a new law comes in on 1st September 2010. The whole thing cost me €20 including a basket of good bread. Doubt if you will find good food cheaper than this outside the area. The clientele is a wild mix of market traders, octogenarians and the occasional tramp (so it must be cheap, although this one paid with a €50 note). As its open 24 hours from Monday to Saturday you also get clubbers coming in the small hours. A great experience, don’t miss.
The other side of the market is dedicated to fish and seafood and
on the side streets are lots of delis and shops selling freshly roasted and ground coffee.
Back to the hotel, short kip, a few press-ups and its back to the markets for another meal, this time at a place near the fruit and veg market over the road from the meat and fish.
On the corner of Theatrou and Sokratous, behind the market, is DIPORTO AGORAS (Elementary A), an ancient tavern with no sign. GEM ALERT!
The entrance is like a pub cellar drop, two open steel doors in the pavement leading to a flight of stairs into the cavern below. Old oak wine barrels down one side, a tiny kitchen, bare bulbs and paper tablecloths is all the ambience you need. About twenty middle-aged guys will be shooting the breeze and worrying their beads. There is no menu but that’s because you can count the available dishes (unchanged for years) on one hand. Chick pea, vegetable or bean stew, some grilled sardines and a plate of tomato, red onion chunks and olives is all there is. I had the butter bean stew (with carrots, hot peppers, dill, parsley and other stuff) which was amazing. With half a litre of retsina in a tin jug cooling in a plastic tub of water, and some great bread, my bill came to €9. Can’t knock that.