The vast majority of restaurants in Athens seem to be tavernas, the Greek version of the bistro. Of course, like bistros, not all tavernas are born equal. Some are fancy and expensive, and others are almost-literally holes in the wall. And you can count on Jon and me to have tried a range of them.I liked the divey places best, mostly because you can count on the same basic dishes at all tavernas (pita, tzatziki, Greek salad, grilled fish, fava bean in some shape or form), and overall, I didn’t see a big difference in the quality of food at cheapo places verus expensive ones.
We had dinner one night at a trendy taverna in the Gazi district (which is where Chelsea meets Adams Morgan) called Mamacas. The place is no secret, having both a New York Times and Times of London writeup to its name. I loved the all-white decor and fairy lights, and the service was friendly and helpful despite its trendiness.
And guess what we ate at Mamacas? From left to right: fava bean puree, grilled flatbreads, and Greek salad. The first batch of grilled breads was outstanding – hot from the oven – but the second batch took half an hour to arrive at our table and was cold and stale. And at 3.60 euros per basket, it cost at least two times more than what it does at regular tavernas.Despite our 50-50 experience with the bread, I think we would have been best off sticking with appetizers at Mamacas. Our roast suckling pig, roast aubergine, and grilled feta ranged from eh to bad, and all this food (and a bottle of local wine) totaled 74 euros. A lot for a taverna meal. If I go back to Mamacas, it’ll be for drinks and snacks only.
Around the corner from Mamacas, on Dekeleon street, is an underground taverna with a sign over the doorway that reads: Oinomayaireto. Jon and I read about it on Chowhound, and it got such rave reviews that we tried it out. Because it was our last night in Athens, we decided to eat early (at 8:30), and when we arrived, the taverna was totally empty. But the lone server was undeterred and sat us down. There’s no written menu, but we could guess the offerings even without his patient recital. We asked for the politiki salad which the Chowhound poster had recommended, and our server immediately asked if we’d found the place “on the Internet.” It seems we’re not the only foreign visitors who’ve walked in asking for this politiki salad (which consists of garlic, yoghurt and pickled eggplant – an intense topping and probably an acquired taste).
The taverna had a lot of quirky charm, and we enjoyed our food there enough. Retsina is all you get by way of beverages, and there’s nothing like watery, homemade wine to go with down-home cooking. Our favorite dish/discovery of the evening was this Greek eggplant “tostada.” The sweetness of roasted eggplant, the tang of feta, and the juiciness of tomato piled onto a crisp, freshly-fried disc of dough. Our server called it a pie, but I’m going to go with Greek tostada. What it should really be called is genius. Our meal for two, with retsina, cost 25 euros.
And since I’m on the topic of divey underground tavernas, I think Diporto, near the Athens vegetable market, deserves a major shout out. Again, it’s underground, and again there’s no written menu. As best we could tell, the entire menu consists of Greek salad, grilled fish, and giant white bean soup. So we ordered it all. Although the Greek salad was missing my favorite ingredient – feta – it was fresh and well-dressed, and the fish was even fresher and perfectly grilled with just the right amount of charred bits. The giant white beans dish was comforting and delicious. Cooked to tenderness, the beans had absorbed the savouriness of the tomato broth. Given how hard it is to find a taverna that’s open for lunch (other than those in the Plaka tourist district), I was thrilled to find Diporto open and packed with a mix of tourists and market regulars.
Last of the taverna roundup is Filippou in Kolonaki, the Athens version of the Upper East Side. The food was good enough, but the restaurant definitely feels old and stuffy – as stuffy as a casual taverna can feel, anyway. I wouldn’t go back. A lot of fake blondes and bland food.
30 euros for a lukewarm soup, overcooked pasta casserole and stringy beef stew was too much.