At our first dinner at Milos Athens, the blindingly sleek white-on-white restaurant at Xenodocheio Milos hotel, my partner, Barry, and I contemplate the dramatic iced display of bright-eyed fish from all over Greece. Around us, chatty waitresses snip fresh oregano into bowls of diaphanous olive oil for patrons who seem to be local moguls. Over pristine langoustines from the Halkidiki peninsula, tiny shrimp from the island of Symi, and eel from Amvrakikos Bay—all glowingly fresh, perfectly cooked—Barry and I reflect on how much we’ve missed Athens.
It’s been nearly five years since I visited the Greek capital—damn you, pandemic!—and I can’t wait to catch up on the food scene of this city, which remains a bastion of classic Hellenic traditions while also tuning itself to the zeitgeist. In an action-packed, 48-hour dinathon guided by two insiders, I plan to revisit stalwart tavernas and their 2.0 iterations, savor the city’s café scene, and get my fill of pites (pies), ouzo, souvlaki, and seafood, all the while keeping myself caffeinated and chill with Greece’s iconic frothy iced coffees.
To highlight the food theme, we are staying here, at Xenodocheio Milos, a gastronomic destination hotel that opened in January of 2022, and is co-owned by reknowned chef Costas Spiliadis (of the Estiatorio Milos empire). The 43-room hotel, located near Syntagma Square, is upping the food ante with its restaurant, which celebrates local farmers and fishermen. (Breakfasts also feature locally sourced organic ingredients, and the entire restaurant menu is available as room service.) Our room’s welcome amenity? A lush, roasted pear in star anise–scented syrup.
We’ll be spending our first day with an old friend, Carolina Doriti, the Athens director of my favorite global tour operator, Culinary Backstreets, and author of the forthcoming Greek cookbook Salt of the Earth.
We kick off our morning at the takeout window of Harry’s Kitchen, a cubbyhole pie bakery opened in 2018 on a small pedestrian street in the center a short walk from our hotel. Owner Harris Satiridis, jovial and gray-haired, inherited the recipe for the sturdy crumbly dough from his grandmother, while the dozen-plus fillings are made by his wife, Yiouli, from recipes passed down generations.
Their classic three-cheese tiropita is oozy with feta, anthotiro (whey cheese), and Cretan graviera (tastes like mild pecorino) and fragrant with mint. “Mint’s good for digestion,” Satiridis says, handing us another pie called kayiana, which cradles plush scrambled eggs cooked with tomatoes, cheese, and oregano. It’s a breakfast of champions. “And to think that pites have been an Athenian street food . . . since what, like, 5 B.C.?” muses Carolina.
It’s 11 a.m. now. In search of designer coffee, we wend through the center’s narrow old commercial streets where shops specialize in single items like doorknobs and buttons. Some streets are lost in a time warp, others are newly pedestrianized. Every block seems to have a boutique hotel under construction—or a third wave coffee joint like Dope Roasting Co., our next stop.
Opened three years year ago in a 19th-century neoclassical building, Dope is the brainchild of Antonis Tsaroukian, who tells us that he is an evolutionary biologist with a PhD from the United States. His Greek Armenian family has been in the coffee roasting trade for more than a century, but in an evolutionary leap forward, Tsaroukian updated the old Athens coffeehouse model, crafting a sleek, soaring space accented with plants and other organic materials and an installing an artisanal bakery.
Everything here is made on the premises, from chewy crusty baguettes to excellent bagels, from fruity sodas to roasted turkey for sandwiches. My call for a frappé gets me a lecture from Carolina how frappé is the old-school instant Nescafe stuff while freddo is its espresso-powered update.
“And here at Dope,” Tsaroukian says, “we use 24-hour cold brews, calling our chilled coffees cryo.” So I switch to a frothy cryo-cappuccino, to go with our dainty truffled turkey sandwich and perfect mortadella-filled baguette. The cinnamon rolls are as advertised: awesome.
A short walk away, souvlaki beckons at the beloved Varvakeios Market. Carolina wrinkles her nose at the market’s new sushi place—“overpriced, inauthentic”—and guides us past butchers’ garlands of innards toward the Evripidou street entrance where Tasos Perdikis is vigorously fanning his charcoal at Volvi. “For souvlaki, charcoal is crucial,” says Perdikis, who hails from a family of six generations of butchers in Northern Greece. “Ours is made with special kermes wood from Mount Athos.”
“Tasos is truly doing something different here,” Carolina says. Besides the traditional pork skewers, he serves soutzoukakia—meatballs associated with Smyrna (present day Izmir, on the Turkish coast), a dish that came with Greek refugees from that area during the forced population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923. We settle on meatballs with “everything”—onion, tomato, a lick of mustard, and a punchy sauce of Florina peppers—as Perdikis expounds on his secret: excellent freshly ground meat from the market, spices aplenty, a touch of ouzo, “plus lots of love and experience.” It was a huge risk, opening his new place during the pandemic. But now, seeing life return to the market, Perdikis is beaming.
A leisurely stroll eastward brings us to the Keramikos district. Last time I visited, stretches of it were graffitied and desolate but “now real estate is crazy,” Carolina says, with foreigners snapping up entire apartment buildings. At the Tuesday farmers’ market here, vendors hawk the season’s first peas, heaps of bitter wild greens, and tender fresh grape leaves for dolmades.
Those are the first things we order at To Laini, a petite kafeneio (a café that also serves real food) opened five years ago by two friends whose family farms on Crete supply most of their ingredients. Soon our cramped outdoor table is covered in a mosaic of pink pickled wild hyacinth bulbs, small fleshy artichokes in green robust village olive oil, and ur-Cretan kohli boubouristous (plump escargots in a vinegary sauce scented with rosemary). After too much tsikoudia, the traditional grappa-like liquor, a parting shot of rakomelo (tsikoudia with honey and orange) sends us waddling off for a deep siesta at our hotel.
Our guide the next day is Ari Vezené, one of the most creative chefs in the country, with acclaimed locavore Vezené restaurants in Athens and Santorini. A major philanthropist, too, he runs—without fanfare—a charity kitchen that prepares 300 daily meals for those in need.
We meet up in the leafy genteel Kolonaki district at a posh bakehouse, Queen Bee. The astonishing, green-striped croissants here explode with a nutty lava of pistachio praline. Owners Angie and Panagiotis Kalyvas tell us they wanted to create a Parisian bakery by way of New York, inspired in part by Manhattan’s Daily Provisions. Pioneering the concept of “all-day breakfast-slash-brunch” they ended up serving the most famous avocado toast in the city. And they put Kamil Saci, a major league French Algerian baker, in charge of pastries.
“The beauty of Athens right now?” philosophizes Ari, nursing his freddo. “Seeing people from all walks of life changing trades, merging jobs, taking chances on eclectic concepts—following their hearts, not just profits.”
He proclaims, “And here’s Athens by way of Berlin!” after we’ve grabbed a cab to Linou Soumpasis k sia, a neo-taverna with a concrete-brushed-steel aesthetic in the arty district of Psyri. Opened last year by a group of restaurateurs from the island of Limnos, it doubles as a shop selling beautiful candles—“a very Athenian situation,” Ari notes.
The concise menu is a study in how young Greek chefs transform seasonal organic ingredients into marvels of understated simplicity. Such as our seared bonito with a green shock of samphire (sea beans) and fresh peas, our brightly flavorful kakavia fish stew, and our ethereal cloud of taramasalata, a fish-roe spread served with house-made sourdough pita. “The taverna 2.0 trend started [in 2014] with places like Seychelles,” Ari says, “and now young chefs are ditching the ‘Zorba the Greek’ octopus and cheap ouzo clichés and redefining the taverna for the 21st century.”
One of Ari’s own latest ventures is Birdman, a hip-hoppy yakitori-centric Japanese pub in the center. Think Athens by way of Tokyo. Claiming his favorite corner stool at the counter facing the binchõ-tan fueled grill, he recounts how Birdman became an unexpected pandemic success thanks to its cool take-out bento boxes inspired by the ones at Japanese train stations. He also shares his plans to open Ikigai, a new boutique Japanese specialty market around the corner.
Soul and funk thrum from the analog sound system. Tattooed grill chefs deliver our charred lacquered skewers of nose-to-beak chicken parts from organic, slow-reared, grain-fed Cretan poultry. But Ari is a passionate beef butcher too, and we pay due respects to the brisket nigiri and tender kalbi-style short ribs.
“Every city needs a Birdman!” declares Barry, slurping the daily special ramen in a rich rooster broth, as I chase the crispy Iberico pork katsu sando with a shot of Japanese whiskey. “Athenians weren’t actually used to dining at bars” Ari says, “but now my customers give me permission to challenge myself and push limits.” He points to a guy in a smart suit polishing off duck gizzards.
We spend the rest of the day touring the Exarchia district with Carolina. Once the edgy domain of students and anarchists a 10-minute cab ride from the center, the neighborhood with its vibrant café culture and eye-popping street art is becoming a trendy new-bohemian hangout. Still, it’s nice to stop back the Athenian clock at the crammed deli of Dimitrios Moiropoulos, a tiny Ali Baba’s cave of comestibles from small Greek producers, in business since 1969.
The hospitable Dimitrios himself improvises an indoor picnic atop a wine barrel. Out comes the plastic bottle of tsipouro (pomace brandy), crumbly sourdough biscuits, olives from Halkidiki the size of small eggs, and pork cured with orange and olive oil from Mani in the southern Peloponnese. The aged feta produced by Corinthian monks is the best I’ve had in my life. “Maybe because it’s made from the milk of holy sheep and goats?” Carolina suggests. Even the huge flat burnished bread loaves here seem sacred, their sourdough starter made by Mani women with holy water and basil stems blessed during mass.
Our Athenian food adventure concludes on a sugary high at Afoi Asimakopouls, a confectionary and dairy shop that’s been indulging local sweet tooths since 1915. Proud of their history, the owners purchase their milk directly from farmers, make their own butter for pastries, and produce exquisite yogurt.
We dig plastic spoons into earthenware tubs of bracingly tangy goat yogurt with a rustic creamy skin formed on top. Then we abandon all self-control for the creamy galaktoboureko (a goat milk semolina custard topped with crisp phyllo) and Ottoman-style kaymak (clotted cream) ice cream scented with sahlep, or wild orchid powder. “This is the Athens I love,” Carolina says, munching on a sugar-glazed bitter orange bonbon. Us too, we assure her.