When you want good food and company in Greece you head to a taverna, a family run small restaurant offering freshly cooked food. Typically Mama will be in the kitchen tending to the oven cooked dishes, Papa will be in charge of the grill, whilst the rest of the family take the orders and wait on tables. The atmosphere is generally convivial and informal, and many still allow the old tradition of letting you pop into the kitchen to see what is cooking that day.
Good tavernas are slightly distinct from more formal estiatorios. In the summer time the seating will be outside and the people eat late, usually after 10p.m. In the winter dining will be inside with customers vying for a place by the log fire or the somba. Some of the tavernas with the best food could well be mistaken for someone’s home, but will fill up with people as everyone knows where the best food is. Appearances may well be deceptive and tavernas generally offer excellent home cooked food for a good price.
Greek tavernas serve one type of food: Greek food. There will be a selection of appetizers and salads to choose from, which go in the center of the table to be shared. Sometimes a meal can be made of these delicious dishes which usually include favourites such as saganaki, feta cheese baked in the oven with peppers, courgette balls, meat balls, anchovies, fried courgettes and aubergines, and tzatiki and taramasolata. A basket of bread is brought with the food, whilst in winter the bread is toasted and drizzled with oil and oregano.
Salads are always in evidence on every Greek table, ranging from the traditional Greek salad to beetroot salad, tomato salad, and the typical winter salad of cabbage and lettuce garnished with olives.
Most tavernas offer a range of oven cooked fare which will vary by day, depending on what Mama is cooking. Dishes may include traditional mousakka or beef stifada, which is a tasty casserole of beef and small onions. Kelftico is a popular choice, comprising lamb wrapped in paper and oven cooked with vegetables until deliciously tender. The grill will turn out chicken, pork and souvlakis.
Seafood is especially popular in summer when the fish is caught fresh from the sea, and it is not unusual to see Greek fishermen bringing their own fish in for the taverna to be cooked for them. Kalamari is on most menus, and octopus is either grilled or served cold in vinegar. Fresh fish can be pricey as the taverna will price it by the kilo, but small fish such as grilled sardines are very reasonable.
Food is usually served with wine, and a taverna will usually offer their own house wine, which in winter may well be ‘spitico’ which is home made and matured in the barrel. Unlike shop bought wine ‘spitico’ has no additives and preservatives and is a welcome choice.
Previously if advising people where to find the best tavernas in Greece one would say look for one full of Greeks smoking and you will know the food will be good. However the recent smoking ban has put paid to that and now you will need to look for a taverna with lots of Greeks nipping outside for their cigarettes. If they are prepared to forgo this essential part of dining out then it is a clear sign that the taverna must have food worth going out for.