BY SUDHA NAIR ILIADES
It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact moment when Athens’ food industry began to blossom as a whole. Was it the rise of Athens as a city-break destination ignited by its renaissance as a contemporary cultural hotspot? Or the new influx of international nomads? Or a post-crisis era that spurred design-and health-focused eateries?
Whatever the reason, restaurateurs in Athens are pushing the taste frontiers with zero-waste sensibilities into a league of its own. Combined with Athens’ celebrated bar scene, award-winning baristas and vibrant street food scene, Athens offers a dawn-to-dusk gustatory experience that makes it a must on any gourmet’s bucket list.
From being props for the thriving tourism sector and as elements supporting the tourism experience, Athenian restaurants have now become a reason for foodies to travel to eat and savour Athens’ unique mix of Mediterranean-anchored, innovative gastronomic offerings. Culinary Athens is up there with ‘Classical Athens’ and ‘Contemporary Culture Athens’. In a survey by Tripadvisor in 2022, visitors claimed that ‘eating out was a prime motivator to visit Athens and that meals consistently exceeded expectations.’
Part of those who have driven that change are the veterans in the industry – restaurateur Apostolos Trastelis, of Michelin-starred Spondi and Hytra, and legendary chef Lefteris Lazarou of Varoulko. But it is the young crop of talent that has re-defined Athens’ gastronomic scene. From foreign chefs who want a slice of the action – like Luca Piscazzi of Pelagos at the Four Seasons, who earned a Michelin star within a year of moving to Greece from London’s Dame Pic – to Greek chefs who’ve trained abroad like Delta’s Scandinavian-influenced chefs Thanos Feskos and George Papazacharias, who worked at the 3-star Geranium and Maaemo respectively, Athens is the base they’ve chosen for their creative laboratory.
Chefs like Tasos Mantis’ recent addition to the Athens restaurant scene, Soil, follows through on the farm-to-fork principle, not just as a millennial mantra but as a deep-rooted philosophy. As part of a new generation of conscious chefs driving change both on the taste front and in terms of sustainable cooking, he sources all his ingredients from his farm in his native Aleppochori village to offer a mainly plant-centric menu.
Not only are these pioneering chef-restaurant owners raising the bar with their superlative cooking talent, they have migrated to neighbourhoods away from the bling of more opulent districts such as Kolonaki and Kifissia to grittier, but more character-laden districts. Soil, is based in a beautiful neoclassical home with a stunning garden in Pangrati, CTC Resto – another Michelin aspirant – is housed in a stunning property in Kerameikos; Herve’s eponymous restaurant combines local street murals with Petralona’s shabby chic aesthetic; Vassilena’s, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, is in Ilissia; Jean-Charles Metayer chose the leafy suburb of Halandri for Pavillion. Hasapika, in the bustling Athens Central Market is drawing attention as much for its exquisite sushi as for the raw appeal of its setting.
All that to say that fine dining isn’t confined to tourist-heavy destinations or in and around hotels – these confident restaurants are drawing Athenians and visitors to areas that they would have bypassed otherwise, engaging them with the local community, and elevating the profile of these areas.
Complementing the vibrant fine dining scene, a whole lot of other foodie establishments have found a home here. Fair-trade cafes such as Underdog Roasters with award-winning baristas; bakeries such as Overoll and Kora helming the sourdough obsession; cocktail bars fronted by mixologists and alchemists who have a legion of international followers, like Baba au Rum, The Clumsies and Noel; home-grown ice-cream parlours such as Le Greche and Maraboo; designer dessert boutiques such as Ourse, Bon Bon Fait Maison and the Pastrytect Dimitris Economides’ sweet lab in Psychico; wine bars that have quietly revolutionized the drinking scene in Athens by promoting smaller viticulturists – from Oinoscent’s affordable tasting menu of 8 Greek wines for 40 euros to cavas such as Oak, Mr. Verigo and Cellier; clubs such as Island that combine sophisticated hospitality with live DJ sets; delis specializing in fine foods such as Nora’s and even specialty delis such Maison d’Olive, devoted exclusively to olives and olive oil.
The collective desire of these taste-leaders and culinary artists to redefine the fine-dining scene has meant that Athens has emerged as a gourmet powerhouse. As any trend-watcher will let you know, once the palate has been tweaked into discovering new flavours, expectations will only rise. Long live the Taste Revolution!
Chefs have realized that post-pandemic restaurant patrons seek so much more than a memorable meal – they want an authentic experience, expect chefs to be locavores and ethically-fair, and to offer a flurry of hyphenated options from gluten-free bread to plant-based butter.
From a handful of fine dining establishments just ten years ago (mainly located in five-star hotels), the food industry in Athens has developed exponentially in breadth and depth. Unlike other colonial capitals who could bank on the ethnic cuisines of their diverse populations to spice up the food landscape, Athens has had to rely on its ingenuity and quality produce to come up with a playful, distinctly Athenian cuisine. The recent influx of foreigners – from creative nomads to Covid emigres and professional refugee chefs have seen a spurt in falafel houses, vegan ice-cream parlours and kosher restaurants.
The sheer range of cuisines on offer – Peruvian cuisine, Japanese-Latino, creative vegan joints, Syrian fusion, steakhouses, coffee-houses – different cuisines done authentically, and dietary preferences catered to with creativity and innovation – is proof of Athens’ eclectic dining scene. Now every meal of the day, from breakfast to lunch and dinner, is presented with stunning quality. With curated wine lists to match those of more sophisticated destinations, the added bonus of eating out in Athens is the affordable price tag, and sea or Acropolis views!