Discover where to taste Cretan food in the island’s capital, Heraklion, with local chef Stefanos Laverenidis.
Steeped in Minoan history, Heraklion offers a unique style of dining. According to local chef and restaurateur Stefanos Laverenidis, “Heraklion has a lot of what we call rakadika or mezedopoleia which serve meze-style small dishes for people to share while they drink raki (an aperitif) or wine.” The famous Cretan diet, referred to as “cuisine of the poor” thanks to its simplicity, is centred around home-grown produce. Many of the traditional recipes are simple dishes, cooked with locally sourced ingredients including wild greens, mountain herbs, dried pulses and fresh fish, doused in copious amounts of extra virgin olive oil.
Hailing from Crete, Stefano has accrued his wealth of culinary experience with stints at Michelin-star restaurants Kadeau in Copenhagen and The Fat Duck in Berkshire, UK. He opened his own restaurant, Apiri, in March 2019, describing it as “one of the few eateries which represent a new era in the local gastronomy”. The ethos behind his menu is “taking elements from local cuisine and transforming them into new dishes, using modern techniques, in a creative way”.
The fresh aesthetic of Apiri is just as much a part of the dining experience as the food. “Our interior design encompasses all the characteristics of an all-day bistro: handcrafted furniture; custom-made dishes from a local ceramics studio; an open kitchen; and earthy tones that blend harmoniously with the surroundings of the historical centre of Heraklion,” says the chef. As for the environment, he explains that the “ambience is relaxed and friendly. We Greeks like to share food, and this concept also applies to Apiri”.
Crete’s largest city certainly has lots of options for eating out, whether it’s a stylish new opening like Apiri or a traditional taverna tucked away in the heart of the old town. Stefanos spoke to Culture Trip about his shortlist of the best restaurants in the area.
An ideal spot for a leisurely lunch, Apiri is one of Heraklion’s best-kept secrets. This contemporary addition to the island’s restaurant scene offers a vibrant dining experience and value-for-money meals. The modern menu lends itself to sharing plates, from cold entreés like sea bass ceviche to grilled octopus and delicious stews. Another big draw are the drinks – signature cocktails, organic wines and a handpicked selection of Greek spirits.
This warm and rustic city-centre restaurant is housed in a Byzantine-era mansion, serving farm-to-table Cretan dishes and cocktails, lovingly homemade with produce sourced from their privately owned farm. Passionate about keeping traditional delicacies alive, the team’s menu pays homage to traditional Cretan cuisine with dishes such as steamed snails and slow-cooked rabbit, as well as Cretan thyme-honey syrup cocktails. Dine outdoors on the sunlit patio or in the dining room, adorned with antiques.
Loved by locals, Kritamon is situated in the beautiful village of Ano Archanes (just south of Heraklion) surrounded by vineyards. Chef Dimitris Mavrakis, trained by French-born Monégasque chef Alain Ducasse, opened the restaurant to take advantage of the natural produce and showcase his interpretation of Cretan cuisine. The menu is created exclusively from local ingredients, sourced from the restaurant’s own organic farm and herb garden, as well as artisan cheese makers, farmers and winemakers. Signature dishes include homemade Cretan pasta and pastries, plus rustic salads dressed in pomegranate, verbena and carob honey. Enjoy gourmet dining in the picturesque courtyard, ideal for unwinding with some carafes of Cretan wine.
In the heart of the old town, with a stellar view of the Morosini Lions Fountain, is the Greek-Italian fusion restaurant Prassin Aloga. The intimate dining area features a ceramic-tile mural inspired by the sea, reflecting the informal atmosphere of the restaurant. Tuck into a reasonably priced Mediterranean feast, with mouthwatering seasonal dishes ranging from fragrant turmeric-spiced soups, refreshing summer salads with aloe vera, creamy risottos and tender cuts of meat. Make sure to leave room at the end for the famous tiramisu.
Another affordable place to eat in the centre of town is the O Magos taverna, just a stone’s throw away from the must-see Archaeological Museum. It features all the hallmarks of authentic Cretan hospitality: a bustling kitchen, lively dining area, traditional Greek dishes, and impromptu performances of live folk music. Try Crete’s famous dakos salad (barley rusks topped with chopped tomatoes and crumbled feta cheese), dolmades (stuffed vine leaves) or oven-baked kleftiko, a slow-cooked lamb dish with tomatoes, potatoes and aromatic herbs. The taverna is renowned for generous portions, meaning you’re bound to leave well fed.
If you’re looking for a high-quality steak house in the centre of town, Kouzeineri is a must-try. Recently renovated, the restaurant presents a sleek and sophisticated take on an American diner. Meat lovers will be in their element with a menu featuring black Angus beef burgers, BBQ boneless ribs, and New Orleans-style Cretan lamb. There are some distinctly Greek flavours on offer too. Notably these include the artichoke pie, tirokafteri spicy cheese spread, and beetroot, yogurt and almond salads. The fine dining experience is complete with a sommelier on hand to guide you through the extensive international wine collection.
Near the charming Venetian port, Ladokolla serves a bounty of fresh seafood. This family-owned eatery serves beautifully presented dishes in stylish surroundings. Spend an afternoon sipping on the restaurant’s 12 varieties of local raki or ouzo, along with tasty bites like grilled octopus, fried calamari and smoked herring dips. More substantial plates include seasonal shellfish, seafood risottos and more adventurous options such as wild ray fillets or marinated tope shark served with crisp salads.
Something of a hidden gem, the historic Vourvouladiko taverna is located in the up-and-coming Lakkos neighbourhood, known for its emerging arts and culture scene. A buzz around the restaurant has been created by the contemporary cooking and stunning lush courtyard dining setting. Chefs Antonis Tzagarakis and Giannis Torakis present a seasonal menu that changes daily, with delicious homemade Greek recipes influenced by traditional Anatolian and Armenian cuisine. It’s worth sticking around for dessert – the handmade pasteli (sesame and honey bars) with ice cream is one of their most talked-about dishes.
The village of Skalani is only ten minutes from the Palace of Knossos, where you’ll find the award-winning Olive-Mint. Chef and restaurateur Argyro Varda has embraced the richness of Cretan gastronomy, serving signature dishes such as Minoan lamb seasoned with rosemary, honey and garlic, fried pork shank marinated in citrus and honey, and indulgent fig cheesecake. Other highlights on the menu include cheese platters of baked Cretan graviera, talagani and halloumi, along with local wines.