These fantastic Greek restaurants could shake up your ideas about fine dining in Greece. Not very long ago, you'd be hard pressed to find anything beyond a restaurant interpretation of good home cooking (which, of course, is rarely a bad thing).
But changes are afoot in Greece and a new breed of chefs is beginning to compete with other stars of European cooking — gathering Michelin stars as well. In 2017, these were mostly gathered in and around Athens. But a revived interest in modern European cuisine is beginning to emerge in Greece's second city, Thessaloniki. It's a region to watch for the future. Meanwhile, these restaurants across the country are creating a buzz right now.
Spondi, near the Panathenaic Stadium in Athen, first opened in the mid 1990s but its rise to gastronomic prominence is a 21st century phenomenon. Since 2001, the restaurant's imaginative modern cuisine has gathered accolades as one of Greece's best — two Michelin stars among the awards.
The restaurant spreads over two romantic courtyards and two adjoining, intimate dining rooms in an ancient, renovated stone house. One of the dining rooms is built of reclaimed bricks styled in arches to resemble a vaulted cellar. The courtyards are open from May to October.
Seasonal ingredients, often from named suppliers, are combined in a menu that is primarily modern French (always dear to the Michelin critics), with reinterpreted Italian and classic Greek dishes as well. The wine list is drawn from these three countries as well. It is small but carefully chosen and we were impressed to find Santorini's famous vin santo included in the dessert menu.
To the restaurant's French emphasis, Chef Angelos Lantos adds distinctive flavors and aromas of Greece. Dishes prepared with lemon and citrus, wild thyme, acacia honey, eggplant and olives ensure you never forget where you are.
The à la carte menu is breathtakingly expensive: €37 for a starter of langoustines with lemon, caviar, grapefruit, gentian and celery; €60 for wild turbot with seasonal vegetables. Two prix fixe menus offer better value with a good selection of the restaurant's best dishes.
The "Initiation" menu is €73 per person (€90 paired with two wines) for four courses. Depending on the season, that could include crab, a savory mousse, a meat dish and dessert.
For €130 per person (rising to €175 with four Greek wines or €215 with six international wines) the "Discovery" menu is four courses with cheese, coffee and special chocolates.
Where: 5 Pyrronos Street, Pagkrati, Athens
When: This is a dinner only restaurant, open every day from 8 to 11:45 p.m. Reservations are taken online.
The marina setting, in the Piraeus district of Mikrolimano, adds as much to the charm of this Varoulko as does its menu of modern influenced yet traditional seafood dishes.
The dining room, set close to the water's edge, offers views of passing yachts and wonderful sunsets over the sea, while diners tuck into Chef Lefteris Lazarou's award winning cuisine. Lazarou followed in his father's footsteps as a seafaring cook. He opened the restaurant near his home turf in 1987 and by 1993 was winning awards. He has held onto his one Michelin star since 2002. It is particularly notable as he was the first Greek chef serving Greek food to ever gain that recognition.
His aim, he has said, was to "create a 'boat' on land, a kitchen that will never get rocked by the waves."
The output of that kitchen is variety of dishes that on the surface seem familiar to anyone who knows classic Greek cooking, but they all have a bit of a modern spin. For example, Varoulka serves a very good taramasalata, but diners can also choose a fine, white, herring-based spread know and reggosalata.
There's a dish of salt cod served with skordalia, the Greek garlic, bread and almost sauce, that is very much like a French aioli but familiar to anyone who has spent time at a Greek island taverna by the sea.
Lunchtime dishes are the most traditional. It's at dinner that the menu spins out into the modern European realm with dishes for the more adventurous: moussaka made with minced crayfish; squid couscous with Amaretto sauce; sea fish with cauliflower mousse, vegetable ratatouille and cuttlefish ink sauce. And those with happy memories of the way it used to be can pick out their own grilled fish from the catch of the day, and priced per kilo.
Expect to spend between €42 and €60 for dinner.
Where: 52 Akti Koumoundourou Street, Mikrolimano, Piraeus
When: Lunch and dinner, every day from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Hytra began its life in the entertainment an nightlife district of Psirri in 2004, it has changed locations and chefs several times since then. Now, on the 6th floor of the Onassis Cultural Center in Syngrou, it specializes in imaginative cooking — some say the most outré in Athen — and cocktail pairings with food. In 2017 it had one Michelin star.
It's Greek food, but with a twist. To begin with, there is nothing even remotely traditionally Greek about the setting — a cutting edge, contemporary room featuring lots of glass, polished steel, modern steam molded furniture and, surprisingly, wicker basketry everywhere (in the walls, the bar, some of the furniture, even large stretches of the ceiling). You can return to the familiar Greece on the roof terrace bar, where the views of the Acropolis at night are pretty spectacular.
The eclectic furnishings are mirrored in the randomness of the menu. A gourmet menu sits alongside an affordable carte of street food, but you may need a server's help to discover what dishes pair with what.
Take the easy way out and choose one of the 8-course fixed price menus, with either wine pairing (€59 per person or €83 with four glasses of wine) or the restaurant's famous cocktail pairing (€59 per person or €93 with four cocktails per person).
The idea of pairing cocktails with food — not as bar nibbles, but as a meal, is unusual. Here is what you might expect from the winter menu:
- Shi Drum ( a fish) prepared with verjuice, kombucha and kefir paired with Citrus Island — an Aperol cocktail with citron, thyme, lime and soda.
- Cured bonito with ginger, red chili and shiso vinegar paired with spinach and cream, root vegetables and a Tijuana — a cocktail of tequila, lime, agave and stout.
- Milk fed lamb cooked with mastic yogurt and quinoa, paired with a Barbados cocktail of rum, plum and black tea.
And so it goes, through several more courses including a dessert of a parfait, loukoumi — the traditional Mediterranean sweet also known as Turkish delight, and hand made marshmallows — served up with a Prosecco cocktail.
Everything is beautifully presented, many of the dishes virtually covered with colorful, edible flowers. If you are finding it a bit difficult to identify the Greek elements of this meal, so did we. But never mind; it is tasty, unusual and rather entertaining.
And to add to the randomness of the experience, the restaurant's name — Hytra — the Greek word for a terra cotta vase - so now you know.
Where: The Onassis Cultural Center 107 -109 Syggrou Avenue, Athens 11745
When: The restaurant is open every day, for dinner only, from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m.; Sunday to Thursday last orders are taken at 12 a.m., Friday and Saturday last orders are 1 a.m.
The Funky Gourmet, in Keramikos not far from the buzzy night life district of Gazi, serves up what joint chef-owners Georgianna Hiliadaki and Nick Roussos refer to as Creative Mediterranean cuisine. It's really more related to the "molecular" cuisine pioneered by Chef Ferran Adria at El Bulli in Spain. And not so coincidentally, both the chef-patrons did a stint in the kitchens of that legendary restaurant.
The cuisine is characterized by familiar flavors served in unfamiliar and unconventional guises. Typically, the Choriatiki Salad — normally a Greek salad of tomatoes, olives, onions and feta cheese — is presented as a white granita onto which a yellow liquid is poured from a pipette.
It's a playful, sometimes puzzling spot that's headed for destination restaurant status — and is very expensive. In this case, the tasting menu in 2017 is €145 per person, €230 with wine and drinks.
Whatever you call it, the cuisine has earned the two chef-owners two Michelin stars since opening in 2009. And in 2017 they placed on the Diners Club World's 50 Best Restaurants Discoveries list.
Where: 13 Paramithias Street and Salaminos, 10435, Athens
When: Tuesday to Saturday 7 p.m. to midnight, last orders 9:30 p.m.