Athens’ food scene is a perfect mix of Greek tradition and culture. On a Culinary Backstreets walk, Marissa Tejada discovered what she’d been missing all these years.
Walking Athens with Culinary Backstreets
I wondered what great food place could be here, a street I had passed so many times before. Then my Culinary Backstreets culinary walk guide, Carolina Doriti seemed to read my mind.
“The best souvlaki in town.”
I nodded already believing her. After eight years of living in Athens, I’ve learned you need to stumble upon the best places or be introduced to them.
Kostas: The best souvlaki in Athens
I had a feeling she was right when she greeted a small gathering of men with greying hair, the local neighborhood early lunch crowd. With their affable smiles, it was easy to see this was their steki or local hangout. Only one, swinging a koumboloi (traditional prayer beads), wasn’t clutching a freshly prepared souvlaki, a flat grilled pita rolled and stuffed with grilled meat and fresh vegetables topped with a toss of spice.
A fading vintage photo of a man smiling in a cooking apron was digitized on the small entrance. Above it, the name of the place: ‘Kostas’. Inside, a smooth spotless counter affronted standing room for six people and a wall decorated with frames of foreign and Greek press clips. The bustle of friendly conversation paused to greet Carolina. A woman behind the counter nodded with a smile, and asked if we wanted some raki, a traditional anise-flavored Greek spirit, while we waited for our souvlaki. We agreed as she tipped the liquor generously out of an amber colored water pitcher into our glasses.
Sounds sizzled from a plain cooking grill where a young pale cook, with a white hat and apron, jovially continued his conversation with the room behind him. Speaking into the air, he turned the skewers of pork with ease. Above the grill was a sign that read oxi anhos which means no stress.
Local Greek food experiences
I found out these regulars come almost daily for their souvlaki and to greet Kostas and his partner, Popi, who manages the counter. Kostas, stands at the grill, a business started by his grandfather – also named Kostas – whose photo first greeted us outside.
Soon enough we delved into our order: pita bread stuffed with tomatoes, herbs, spices and right-off-the-grill pork. Warm and delicious. Classic Greek fast food, Athens style.
Carolina nodded at the locals around us.
“This, here, is what it is about. Athens at its heart is a community that gathers around food in different places, different times of the day.”
Before we said goodbye, I asked to take Kostas’ photo. He blushed but agreed and promptly went back to grilling. I noticed several dozen passport photos pinned next to the grill. Carolina explained – even why her own photo graced the wall.
“That’s the hall of fame. Oh, yes, they know me. Usually, this place has a line down the street. I always come here early or I have to pre-order for my walks.”
Carolina is a multi-talented foodie who wears hats as a professional chef, food stylist, and food writer. Guide is another hat she wears for Culinary Backstreets, strolling her hometown to take guests deeper into Athens’ world of local foods, influences and culture.
Backstreet Plaka: exploring the ‘Culinary Heart of Athens Walk’
On her ‘Backstreet Plaka: Exploring the Culinary Heart of Athens Walk’, we leisurely breezed through Plaka. It’s one of Athens’ oldest neighborhoods and one I’ve lived near for years yet, thanks to her, discovered more hidden corners.
During the tour we stopped by a city bakery to order handmade treats including a sesame honey snack called pasteli, part of the Athenian diet since ancient times. We also tasted the best grape must pudding I have tried. We savored fresh cheese and vegetable pitas. Then we relaxed at a leafy café in the heart of the district for a Greek coffee break and bite of her homemade kollyva, a flavorful and healthy ancient Greek dish served on certain occasions since antiquity.
We also checked into a family-run store stocked with seasonal products from across the country and tasted diverse jams and sipped more liquors. The walk also brought us into the backroom kitchen of a famous taverna where we choose our lunch dishes directly from huge cylindrical slow cooking pots simmering with the day’s slow cooked specialities, as so many working Athenians have done for more than a century.
In between, we explored classic Athenian sights including historic churches, where she offered insight about the layers of history behind them. We even peered in the windows of the work rooms in Orthodox Christianity’s biggest religious center. Her stopping points, she said, all connect to food.
“There are traces here from the ancient Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans in the architecture, churches, buildings, and the homes. These all tell a story of diversity and that diversity transfers to our food culture today.”
More than Greek food
We ended up hiking up jumble of historic whitewashed homes set in the middle of the Plaka, a unique neighborhood called Anafiotika that looks like just like a Cycladic island. Residents are descendants of Anafi and recreated their island paradise right on the rocky land under the shadow of the Acropolis in the 19th century.
At a scenic point, I looked out over at the expanse of the city, where Mt. Lycabettus towers in the distance, the Acropolis’ northeast flank above our heads, and fell in love with the view of Athens all over again.
In the heart of an urban life, Athens has built layers of history like Anafiotika, like Kostas’s “no stress” souvlaki with a recipe unchanged for generations, like the bakeries and pita shops that are run with the heart and soul of the food artisans behind them and like the shops that aim to bring Greece’s healthy and traditional food products to a larger market.
On our way back down, we both noticed the aroma of slow cooked meat and vegetables wafting in the tiny footpaths surrounded by green potted plants, whitewashed walls, and bright blue doors. Carolina summed it up.
“Everywhere you go in Greece, the food story doesn’t end with the food. It’s also about the culture and experience. You’ll like where we go next.”
Culinary Backstreets is a global guide to local eats. They write about the local food scene in cities around the world and offer small group food tours there. For info about Culinary Backstreets tours in Athens, visit the website.
Follow Marissa Tejada on her blog, Travel Greece, Travel Europe; and on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
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