ATHENS – We at The National Herald will never cease singing the praises of Greek cuisine – in occasional articles, regular columns, and special inserts alike – but when in Athens… you can now enjoy more than our marvelous Greek/Mediterranean Diet.
The Greek and international media alike has been amazed at the 2022 tourism statistics – not just the totals, which are impressive, but the calendar entries. The central government and municipalities have finally succeeded in extending the season from summer’s lure of sun, sea, and sand.
Athens is at the core of the new allure, and its food and drink offerings are among the keys that have made it a truly cosmopolitan city and a hot destination with interesting tavernas, restaurants, lounges, and ‘barakia’ in every neighborhood.
Some venues are born of entrepreneurialism – “Athens needs more Japanese restaurants” – others, as in the United States, serve the needs of immigrant groups. However, while some neighborhoods are known for particular ethnic groups – in some parts of Kallithea you are as likely to hear Russian spoken as Greek – they don’t all spawn restaurants. Nevertheless, many locales host restaurants featuring food from all over the world… that Greek-Americans can enjoy when they are in the mood for a culinary change of pace.
If you have a taste for Latin American food, there are a handful of Brazilian restaurants in Athens – and there are, believe it or not, at least 40 Mexican restaurants! What follows is a little smorgasbord (a Swedish word for a type of meal that includes several different foods and also denotes any wide variety of things) of the international fare waiting for you in Athens.
VIVE LA FRANCE!
While there has been a well-publicized campaign to pressure the British Museum to return the Parthenon Marbles, little if anything has been written about the fact that two of the greates individual pieces of ancient Hellenic art, the Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo, are also held captive in a famous foreign museum, in this case, the Louvre in Paris. That doesn’t rattle Greece-France relations the way it occasionally shakes up Greece-UK ties, and it’s just as well, because most Greeks appreciate the support France has been giving their country in its dispute with Turkey. That said, there are around 20 French restaurants here, reflecting, in a sense, past and current relations between the cuisine of the two peoples. It is said that French cooks’ delight in fish sauces dates to the encounter of the Crusaders with Byzantine cookery – and who doesn’t adore the bechamel sauce that is the gustatory foundation of pastitsio?
UNA FACIA, UNA PIATA
Every once in a while – and not only in Greek media – there is a debate over the supposed Greek origins of… pizza. Let’s leave that on the side of the table at this time – after all, there are so many other offerings from both nations to enjoy. And it’s no wonder: with so many Greek genes across the Adriatic and lots of Italian ones in the inhabitants of Greece’s islands and coasts, maybe similar palates inevitably generate overlapping cuisines. At the very least, there is a common love of olive oil and pasta – note the aforementioned pastitsio. As one would expect, there are a wide variety of Italian restaurants to choose from all over Attiki.
SET ASIDE THE HISTORY FOR A BIT, ENJOY THE BEER
Few countries’ relations in recent years have been more complicated than those of Greece and Germany. Memories of a brutal World War II occupation live on in the minds of many Hellenes – as well as the lingering issues of reparations and the return of forced loans. More recently, Berlin was not so friendly to Athens during the Greek economic crisis – but there are hundreds of thousands of Hellenes in Germany, many of whom own restaurants there. When they return to the homeland, they bring back some culinary habits.
UNA FACIA UNA, UNA PIATA II
Greece-Turkey relations are more than fraught, they are explosive, but it’s impossible to deny that in parts of the world like Germany – and Brooklyn – if a person walks into a venue and hears only music and sees only faces and smells only food, they are not sure whether it’s a Greek or Turkish restaurant.
While anyone who likes the taste of Turkish food and drink can step into one of hundreds of restaurants in Athens and enjoy the Greek versions of Turkish dishes, there are in fact a number of authentic Turkish restaurants in the Greek capital. There are, of course, also numerous Greek-owned restaurants that feature the cooking of Constantinople and Asia Minor, for example, Karamanlidika on Sokratous Street in Athens Center. The ‘Karamanlides’ are one of the ancient Hellenic populations that were forced out of Turkey in 1923 in a less-than-voluntary population exchange.
The category of ‘food of nations that were or are enemies of Greece’ extends to the Persians, and indeed, there are Iranian restaurants to choose from. Greece, however, has friends near and far, including the countries of the Balkans that were once fierce rivals, if not enemies. You will find restaurants featuring the food of Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania, and Croatia.
Another cultural cluster includes nations which have Orthodox Christians populations – there are restaurants representing Lebanon, Syria, and Georgia. Then there are the Oriental Orthodox nations that are so close to the religion of Greeks and Russians that their theologians have already declared that there are no theological reasons for them not to be in communion. The laity, however, are not ready for that – but they do enjoy one another’s food. The cooking of Armenia, Egypt, and Ethiopia can be sampled in Athens.
While there may not be restaurants representing Belgium, the Netherlands , the UK, or Austria, there are pubs with colorful names like The James Joyce, the Wee Dram Scottish Pub, and Molly Mallone’s Irish Pub. The beer and liquor of the homelands flow freely – but some offer their traditional food, too. On the other hand, their most popular products are well represented in several establishments in Athens like The Low Profile Whiskey Bar, Barley Cargo downtown, and Birmingham Beer House in Kallithea.
When Greeks or visitors from North and South America, Europe, or Asia crave a taste of food from more distant places, they will find Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Indian restaurants.
‘DAD, I JUST WANT A BURGER’
For Americans, it is a pleasant surprise to find excellent burger and pizza and BBQ joints. Yes, you can get a good steak in Athens.
On a closing note, to bookend the sacrilege of my first sentence, I will sing of one Hellenic thing – Greek bread. Oh, the wonderful bakeries of Attiki with that bread we should consume less of – but can’t stop eating. Bread is perhaps the most spiritual dimension of a meal, and the eternal aroma of bread baking down the street at dawn is the best way to start a day. There is a reason why that product of (ideally) human hands is at the heart of a Christian’s communion with the Divine.