In most countries, you go out for dinner at a restaurant, or an estiatorio in Greek. However, many Greeks don’t go to an estiotorio when eating out. Instead, the Greeks eat at taverns. But what are these?
What is a tavern?
Translating the Greek tavern, or taverna, gives a few results. One says that it is a small Greek restaurant. However, I have been at taverns that can seat up to a hundred people. So being small is not the correct requirement for a distinguishment between a restaurant and a taverna. Also wrong is the definition that implies that a tavern is a Greek cafe with music and dancing. Although this might happen in some of them, it is not a standard and does not happen in every tavern in Greece. It is also not the case that a Greek restaurant is a taverna. As mentioned before, Greece has estiatorios. Actual restaurants that are not tavernas. So what is the proper translation of tavern in English?
There is no single word that explains the meaning of the Greek tavern. It isn’t a bar, lunchroom, diner, saloon, or any other type of food establishment. The closest translation is maybe a dining room. A tavern is a place for a not-at-home-hosted dinner party. A place to feel comfortable with friends or family, without dishes at the end of the evening. A place for sharing food and conversations while not worrying about a giant bill.
The requirements of a Greek tavern
Dishes & Prices
Greek taverns don’t have a menu, and if they do, they don’t use it. Ordering at a Greek taverna happens through the waiter, who will tell you which dishes are available that day. Taverns serve local dishes and specialties, often depending on the season of your visit. In many fish taverns, the waiter invites you to follow him into the kitchen. He will show you the fish they caught that day, and from these, you can pick out the ones you want for your table.
Local seasonal products make the prices at a tavern pretty cheap. In non-touristic tavernas, mezes and salads are around 4 or 5 euros. Main dishes start from 7 or 8 for meat. Fish can be slightly more expensive, as well as taverns in touristic islands and cities.
Since prices at a Greek tavern are low, service might slightly differ from what you expect when eating out. First of all, cutlery is not placed on the tables as it is in a restaurant. It often comes in a basket or holder, and you should spread it around yourself. Besides, there is always a giant paper towel as a tablecloth. This might look strange on your first visit. However, the paper cover is much needed for Greek family dinners. I can not remember one evening without this thing getting entirely covered in food and drinks.
Lastly, the chairs. The most uncomfortable but traditional wooden seats. I believe these chairs are the most recognizable feature of Greek taverns. During the summer, they can be even more uncomfortable, wearing shorts or a skirt. So cover your upper legs when you go. Unfortunately, they will always remain a part of the tavern experience.
A Greek tavern is a not-at-home alternative for a Greek dinner party. The table has to be full of food, and everyone should share. Don’t order your own dish at a tavern, especially not the salads and the mezes, the starters. Depending on your company, you might choose the main dish yourself. However, more often than not, this one is shared as well, especially in fish taverns. All the food goes to the middle of the table, and everyone serves him- or herself from there. And if a dish is about to finish, you just order it again.
Good to know is that although the mezes and salads are categorized as starters, this does not mean they will be served before the main course. This is the case in many other countries, but in Greece, everything is served whenever the cook finished preparing it. Usually the starters will come before the main course. But then the main course comes right after, before you finish what is already on the table. This might seem strange to you but is a wonderful part of the Greek culture. There can never be too much food on the table.
Sharing in a Greek tavern is not limited to just the table. In small villages and rural areas, the tavern owners, as well as their guests, take care of the stray animals that live around. You don’t have to feed a dirty dog during your meal, but it is very common for the Greeks to (after they finish eating) give some to them. When you’re dining outside, of course. Eating inside, you might see Greeks putting leftovers in a napkin, which they take out to feed the animals in the neighborhood. It is nice to do the same!
Although Greek taverns might be a place to eat, spending quality time with friends and family is more important than actually eating food. Drink and have conversations. Enjoy and don’t rush through your meal. That is what makes a tavern better than a restaurant.
In a tavern, I can have a lunch that lasts for 4 hours or a dinner that takes 6. And this is what makes the traditional Greek taverna part of Greek culture, Siga, Siga. No one will send you away or say they need your table if you’re not ordering any more. You have all the time and can stay as long as you want.
There is always a free dessert, usually fruit, at the end of the Greek tavern experience. Good to know as a tourist is that the free dessert usually is served when asking for the bill. It is quite rude to refuse it and instead quickly pay and leave. Reserve some extra time, talk with the owner or the waiter, laugh together, and leave when all the free extras are finished.
Tips for visiting a Greek tavern
How to find a tavern?
As a foreigner, it might still be hard to understand the difference between a restaurant and a tavern while picking out a place to eat. The first tip is that a tavern is much easier to find than a restaurant, especially outside the bigger cities. Secondly, look at the menu. When dishes are cheap, prices are handwritten and adjusted, the menu is local, Greek, or hard to find you found a tavern. Lastly, when the chairs look uncomfortable and old, you have found one!
Do you have lunch or dinner at a tavern?
You can have both! Most of the traditional Greek taverns are at least open from 12 till 12, but in touristic areas even longer. You can eat anything at any time. There is no distinguishment between a lunch and a dinner menu.
Good to know is that although Greek taverns are open all day, they often do have an hour or so, around 18.00, in which they close the kitchen to prepare for the night. During this time, only simple dishes and drinks can be served.
Make sure to bring cash!
Throughout Greece, it is tricky to rely on a card for payment, but don’t do so when you eat at a tavern. Some tavernas do not accept card payments and only allow cash. Make sure you have enough money with you before you sit down.
For the vegans amongst us
Are you a vegan? Most Greek taverns either serve meat or fish. However, being a vegetarian or vegan should not hold you back from this Greek experience. Every taverna does have at least some plant-based options. Check out the 10 vegan dishes you can order in every Greek tavern, or try one of the many Greek cheeses.
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