Athens in 10 Dishes With Local Chef Markos Marmatakis

Fresh produce and flavours abound in Greek cuisine
Fresh produce and flavours abound in Greek cuisine | © ahirao_photo / Getty Images
Olga Kousi

Markos Marmatakis, chef and concept creator at restaurant To Theio Tragi, shares his must-eat Greek dishes and where to try them in Athens.

Athens has many traditional tavernas serving authentic Greek cuisine

Beyond the well-known – and delicious – moussaka and tzatziki, many highlights of Greek cuisine are relatively under the radar and often overlooked by visitors. Markos Marmatakis, head chef of To Theio Tragi (‘the Holy Goat’) – Athens’s first ‘punk bistro’ and cocktail bar, where workers all receive the same salary – shares his recommendations for Greek dishes, from the famed souvlaki to the lesser-known sofrito, and where to find them in Athens.

A traditional Greek salad is a must-try when visiting Athens

1. Souvlaki at Kostas

Restaurant, Fast Food, Mediterranean

Souvlaki is the ultimate Greek fast food and its popularity has risen exponentially in the wake of the economic crisis, thanks to its reliably low price. However, with so many options and variations available, it can be difficult to know where to go for the best quality. Yet Marmatakis doesn’t hesitate. “Kostas on Agias Eirinis square is where you have to go for a souvlaki that is classic, yet different in all the right ways.” At this tiny grill joint, the legendary Kostas himself is keeping his father’s traditional recipe dating back to 1946 alive with his minimal souvlakia. Stuff your pitta bread with either pork or bifteki (meat patties, Marmatakis’s favourite) and choose the trademark peppery tomato sauce (hot, medium or sweet) as a topping.

2. Gemista at Oikonomou's Taverna

Restaurant, Mediterranean, Greek

Gemista means oven-baked vegetables (most commonly tomatoes, but also peppers, courgettes and aubergine) stuffed with rice and herbs. It is considered a ladero (oily) dish, a special category of Greek dishes consisting of stewed or baked vegetables drenched in olive oil. They are best when the tomatoes are in season and are simply accompanied by a slice of feta. As this is considered comfort food by a lot of Greeks, Marmatakis says the best place to have it at is Oikonomou’s Taverna in Petralona, which is guaranteed to fill you with a sweet nostalgia for big Sunday meals with family with its traditional home cooking and convivial atmosphere.

3. Sofrito at Vlassis

Restaurant, Mediterranean, Greek, Vegetarian

An indoor dining area at Vlassis restaurant with a checked-tiled floor, tables with white table cloths and a wooden staircase
© Lonely Planet / Getty Images
From Italy to Cuba, there are many international variations of sofrito. The Greek take on this dish comes from Corfu and its roots are said to come from the influence of Venetian rule on the island from 1401 to 1797. Sofrito is veal steak slowly cooked in a white-wine, garlic and herb sauce, served with rice. “For great recipes from Corfu, go to Vlassis,” says Marmatakis. Behind a big wall of greenery, this ’90s classic restaurant on Michalakopoulou street is a haven from the busy city and gathers a loyal crowd of customers for Greek dishes with its modern twists and exquisite presentation.

4. Pappardelle with Kavourmas at Seychelles

Restaurant, Greek

Little known outside of Greece, kavourmas is cold cut meat soaked in oil and spices. In the olden days, boiled meat would be stored in clay pots with added fats and spices to preserve it for winter. Today, it is a delicacy that Marmatakis says is best sampled at Seychelles on Avdi square in the Metaxourgeio neighbourhood, where a house speciality is Greek pappardelle with kavourmas. Fresh Greek produce is sourced painstakingly from all over the country by the owners, then displayed and prepared by the chefs in front of your eyes in the open kitchen, in a performance rivalling those staged at the Apo Mikhanis theatre across the street.

5. Bifteki at Trigono

Bar, Pub Grub

It would be wrong to call the Greek bifteki just a burger. Biftekia are prepared with oregano, spices, olive oil and stale bread, a cooking practice used to stretch the quantity of meat to make it go further. “The bifteki at Trigono in Kalivia is as big as the plate it comes on,” says Marmatakis. This spot is indeed a “sacred temple of meat” and families swarm to the friendly taverna for the owners’ expertise on quality meats and grilling. “Don’t forget to try the tzatziki,” adds Marmatakis, which is the strongest in the city.

6. Octopus Stifado at Mikres Kyklades

Restaurant, Greek

When thinking of Greek octopus dishes, most people picture lines of them drying under the Greek sun, ready for grilling. However, in the winter months, Greeks prefer to use this high-protein lean seafood in stifado, a slow-cooked, hearty stew made with warming spices and sweet pearl onions. Try this served with fava at Mikres Kyklades, an unassuming fish taverna hiding in a quiet alley in the shadow of Mount Ymittos in Ilioupoli. The taverna brings the sea to your table, straight from the owner’s native Schinoussa, a Cycladic island.

7. Dolmadakia at Rachati

Restaurant, Greek

Another well-known Greek dish is dolmadakia, or dolmades, which are stuffed vine or cabbage leaves. The stuffing and seasonings vary from region to region, but they are usually free of meat, making them a popular meze dish (accompanied traditionally only by lemon wedges) during the Lent period before Easter. Marmatakis recommends the Cretan version with ksinogala (sour milk) from Rachati in Ilioupoli, a cosy, unpretentious mezedopoleio which perfectly fits its name (meaning something like ‘relaxing’). It is run by a Cretan family who also make their own delicious rakomelo spirit using thyme honey from their home village.

8. Galaktoboureko at Serbetospito

Cafe, Pastry Shop, Greek

Σερμπετόσπιτο, Athina
Courtesy of Nancy's Sweet Home
Galaktoboureko is a traditional Greek dessert made with layers of golden-brown crispy filo pastry, topped with melted butter, filled with creamy custard and doused in a fragrant sweet syrup. Marmatakis goes to Serbetospito (also known as Nancy Sweet Home) for galaktoboureko, on Plateia Iroon in Psyrri. This special dessert shop has revived an old-time Athenian trend for “dessert outings” and is always packed. “The key to galaktoboureko is to eat it the day after it is made,” says Marmatakis. “That allows time for the ingredients to come together.”

9. Kakavia at Raki Meze

Restaurant, Greek

Psarosoupa (fish soup) is a popular Greek comfort food, but the recipes for it vary from region to region. Kakavia is a variation of fish soup traditionally prepared by fishing folk on their boats once they were done fishing, using whatever they had on hand as ingredients. Kakavia is a concept more than a recipe, paying homage to the best aspect of Greek cooking: using few but very fresh ingredients to make flavourful meals out of next to nothing. Raki Meze is renowned for its kakavia. Marmatakis explains it was formerly known as Kastelorizo, a chain that also has other successful locations around Athens and serves exceptional seafood.

10. Strapatsada at To Theio Tragi

Restaurant, Bar, Bistro, Greek

10. Strapatsada at To Theio Tragi
Courtesy of The Holy Goat Punk Bistro
Strapatsada, also known as kagianas, was originally a peasant dish, popular because of the availability and low cost of its ingredients (fresh tomatoes, eggs and olive oil). Feta, oregano, thyme or other dried herbs are added to tomatoes and scrambled eggs to create a rich yet light dish. Markos serves strapatsada at his own restaurant, To Theio Tragi in the up-and-coming Petralona district, where you can enjoy it for brunch to the sounds of punk music softly playing in the background.

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