Athens’ gastronomic tradition stretches back to ancient times. Archestratus, known as the ‘father of gastronomy’ and the author of what is thought to be the world’s first cookbook, was an Athenian, and the city’s very name stems from the people’s gratitude to the goddess Athena after she bestowed them with an ever-fruitful olive tree.
A scion of this tree is said to live on at the Acropolis, having survived invasions and fire. To this day, olive oil is described as the life blood of Greece, and the national cuisine puts it centre stage, shrugging off complex sauces in favour of this aromatic elixir.
The simplicity at the heart of Greek cooking has given way in recent years to a more intricate approach with the rise of luxury restaurants, but the time-honoured elements of the country’s cuisine are always present, even in the most garlanded temples of fine-dining.
From souvlaki to sushi
Many of Athens’ most celebrated restaurants are within a stone’s throw of the mighty Acropolis, which rises up from the centre of the city, visible from miles around. These range from Ta Karamanlidika Tou Fani, a much-loved deli-restaurant specialising in the finest regional produce, with a huge range of cured meats and other charcuterie, as well as aged cheeses, superb home-baked bread and traditional pastries, to Birdman, a Japanese izakaya blending yakitori with jazz and funk deep cuts in the manner of a Tokyo ‘record bar’.
Just south of here are two very different propositions: **Spondi**and Soil. The former was the first restaurant in Athens to be awarded a Michelin star, back in 2002, and has since been given a second. Since its inception, a number of fêted French chefs have passed through its kitchens, and though it currently has a Greek chef at the helm, it is still known for its foie gras, veal, langoustines and excellent Gallic-influenced desserts.
Soil, too, has earned a Michelin star for its blend of cutting-edge technique and the finest locally sourced produce, much of which comes from its own kitchen garden. This is not to say that the kitchen is closed to international influences; far from it. Eel is served with guanciale (Italian cured pork jowl) and Indian spices; scallops with yuzu kosho, and Wagyu beef is imported from Kagoshima.
Great food doesn’t have to break the bank in Athens, and one of the city’s specialities is ‘bistronomic’ restaurants, which combine highly skilled chefs with informal dining rooms.
Nolan was at the vanguard of this movement when it opened. A gleaming, glass-sided affair, it is the brainchild of Sotiris Kontizas, best known in Greece as a judge on Masterchef, but with plenty of time and love poured into the creative Asian-influenced dishes: standouts include steam buns with pork shoulder; zucchini with miso and smoked aubergine, and soybean noodles with smoked salmon and tahini sauce. Don’t miss Sweet Nolan, their takeaway patisserie next door.
At a similar price point, Linou Soumpasis focuses on the best of Greece, and chef Lukas Mailer is famously passionate about sourcing the finest seasonal organic produce and natural wines. Simply presented dishes such as wild green leaves with ksinotiri cheese or veal cheeks and chickpea stew resound with flavour as do the pickled vegetable aperitifs and home-made breads.
Another restaurant leaning hard on market-fresh organic produce is Annie – Fine Cooking, a welcoming spot with a menu that changes daily. Emphasis is on fish, and you might see a scorpion fish ceviche or sea bass in broth being prepared at the open kitchen.
Tables with a view
Not all of Athens’ best restaurants are clustered near the historic centre, and Pelagos sits like a grand ocean liner overlooking the Aegean Sea. The speciality, naturally enough, is fish and seafood, but there are also tasting menus aimed squarely at meat-eaters (featuring foie gras, quail ravioli, lamb tartare and boeuf bourgignon, among other dishes). The restaurant sits within a Four Seasons hotel, with all the luxurious touches you’d expect.
If the budget doesn’t quite stretch to Pelagos, another upmarket seaside experience can be had at Varoulko, which overlooks the marina. The menu almost exclusively features seafood (though there are vegan options), and the fish soup is legendary. Mains include a sea bass carpaccio with seaweed; cuttlefish risotto; and John Dory with creamed courgette, mint and truffle.
For a view of a different kind, head up to the rooftop at Hytra on the sixth floor of the Onassis Cultural Centre, from which you can gaze across at the Acropolis. The dishes are miniature works of art; clever and delicate, they beg to be photographed, though Hytra’s Michelin star was not won on aesthetics alone, and this is some of the best cooking you’ll experience in the city.