What is the food like in Greece?

Greece is a food lover’s paradise! The cuisine of Greece is rich and diverse. With a focus on fresh and seasonal ingredients, bold flavors, and traditional cooking techniques. From savory gyros and succulent souvlaki to creamy tzatziki and sweet baklava. Greek food is sure to satisfy your cravings and leave you wanting more.

But what is the food like in Greece, you ask? Well, let’s just say that if you’re on a diet, you might want to leave your self-control at home. Greek food is hearty, delicious, and oh-so-tempting. Here are a few of the things you can expect to find on the menu:

The five most famous foods in Greece:

Meze

Mezes are a staple of Greek cuisine. They are something like starters, small plates of delicious dishes. Mezes are perfect for sharing, and they are a great way to sample the variety of food the country has to offer. Some popular meze dishes include:

  1. Dolma. Stuffed vine leaves with rice, herbs, and sometimes meat, depending on the region or even the cook.
  2. Tzatziki. A yogurt dip with cucumber and garlic.
  3. Spanakopita. Pie stuffed with spinach and feta.
  4. Greek salad or farmer’s salad. The famous salad with feta, olives, tomatoes, cucumber, onions, and olive oil. 

Mezes are perfect for vegetarians and vegans traveling in Greece. Although many of the main dishes include either meat or fish, the starters are much more plant-based. Are you on a vegan diet? Check this guide on which mezes you can order in the many taverns around Greece.

Gyros

Gyros is the ultimate Greek street food. It is made with thinly sliced meat (usually lamb, beef, or chicken) that has been marinated and cooked on a spit. This meat is wrapped in a pita with lettuce, tomato, onions, tzatziki, or any other sauce of your choice. Sometimes even potatoes are added. Gyros is cheap in Greece, while one pita can feel like you ate a whole meal. Trust us, you’ll want to try at least one (or ten) during your trip to Greece.

Souvlaki

Souvlaki is made with marinated meat (usually pork or chicken) that has been grilled and served on a skewer. Similar to Gyros, it is often served in (or with) a pita, with vegetables and tzatziki. Above all, souvlaki is a popular snack or meal option in Greece, and you’ll find it at many street food vendors and taverns.

Moussaka

Moussaka is a classic Greek casserole. It is made with layers of eggplant, minced meat, and a creamy béchamel sauce. It’s hearty, comforting, and oh-so-delicious. You’ll find it on the menu at many Greek restaurants, and it’s a must-try if you’re a fan of eggplant. However, the best moussaka experience is a homemade one. So if you are ever invited to try a home-made-moussaka, say yes!

Not into eggplant? A great alternative on Moussaka, is the less famous Pastitsio. This dish has a similar idea, but instead of using layers of eggplant, pasta is used.

Baklava

No trip to Greece is complete without trying some baklava. This sweet and flaky pastry is made with layers of phyllo dough filled with nuts and honey. It’s the perfect end to any meal. You can find baklava at most bakeries and sweet shops in Greece.

Maybe you wonder why baklava is on the list of Greek foods, isn’t it Turkish? Although the Turkish are more famous for their baklava, the Greeks have their own delicious recipe. With more spices, different nuts, and a thicker dough, the Greek baklava is definitely worth a try!

Kali Orexi!

So, what is the food like in Greece? It’s delicious, diverse, seasonal, and will have you coming back for seconds (or thirds). Make sure to bring your appetite and a sense of adventure, because Greek food is sure to surprise and amuse your taste buds. One last tip: don’t forget to add some local feta to everything you eat in Greece! Kali Orexi!

Note for people on a plant-based diet

Many of the most famous Greek recipes include meat. However, don’t let this scare you to visit Greece when you follow a plant-based diet. Traditionally, the Greeks are used to eating a lot of beans, lentils, and vegetables in general. Although this food is seen as food for home and often not served in most taverns and restaurants, the country does offer a great variety of vegan dishes. If you want to know more about traveling in Greece on a vegan diet, continue reading here.

Do you want to prepare yourself for a visit to Greece? Or do you simply want to learn all there is to known about this beautiful country? Leave your email below and get the answer to all your questions!

Is it possible to stick to a vegan diet in Greece?

The Greek restaurants abroad are mostly famous for their moussaka and mixed grill. Gyros, souvlakia, and keftedes dominate the image of Greek cuisine. Meat. With some feta cheese and olive…

Greek taverns

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…

Greek taverns

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.

Service

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. 

Share

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!

Don’t rush

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.

Free dessert

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.

Do you want to prepare yourself for a visit to Greece? Or do you simply want to learn all there is to known about this beautiful country? Leave your email below and get the answer to all your questions!

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Is it possible to stick to a vegan diet in Greece?

The Greek restaurants abroad are mostly famous for their moussaka and mixed grill. Gyros, souvlakia, and keftedes dominate the image of Greek cuisine. Meat. With some feta cheese and olive oil to complete the true Geek taste. But is it true that the Greeks eat just meat? And what about a holiday in Greece on a vegan diet?

The Greeks don’t eat only meat

First things first. It is not true that the Greeks are only eating meat at home. Although there is a big variety in what’s on the menu in the different regions of Greece, the average Greek diet is pretty diverse. Gyros is to eat on the street and souvlakia are to celebrate. Greek mothers actually cook a lot of vegetables and legumes for their children. And when there is meat or fish, there is always a salad next to it.

It is a misconception that the Greek cuisine consists only of meat, created by the restaurants abroad. Greece actually has a higher than average consumption of vegetables in Europe and a far lower meat consumption than the US. Party due to the Greek salad that is eaten with every meal in Greece. But did you know that Greece has a lot of traditional recipes that use legumes?

Beans in the Greek culture

Traditionally, beans have always played a big role in the Greek diet. The Greeks are orthodox and with this religion comes a lot of fasting. 180 to 200 days a year, the Greek Orthodox Christians don’t eat meat, fish, dairy products, and olive oil. For more than half of the year, and at least two times a week, the traditional norm is the vegan diet. And as a result, there are amazing traditional Greek dishes based on legumes. Fava, fakes, or fassolada are just a few examples of the many tasty vegan dishes to choose from.

Apart from the religious reasons to eat beans, there used to be an economic one as well. The history of Greece knows many times of war and poverty. Legumes are cheap, filling, and easy to keep for a longer time. Especially in the Greek countryside, people kept beans in the basement underneath the house to feed the family in times of need. Even in the most recent economic crisis, which started in 2009, the consumption of beans in Greece grew.

Meat is wealth and celebration

Although beans are well known and fasting is very common, there is something that makes the Greeks unable to accept being vegan. Because, without meat or fish, how can you celebrate anything? Or how can you welcome guests to your house? Meat in Greece is a symbol of wealth and celebration. Family dinners, holidays, weddings, or just a friend coming over, all will not be complete for a Greek without meat.

Take my yiayia, she is fasting 200 days a year and lactose intolerant. Yiayia mostly eats delicious beans and fresh vegetables. However, every time I tell her I will visit, she panics. What to cook for someone who doesn’t eat meat? I tell her to just cook what she makes for herself. Trust me, yiayia’s cooking is amazing, even when it’s just bean soup. But even for her, it is impossible to welcome me into her house without meat and feta. She will spend hours in the kitchen preparing the most delicious kotopita (chicken pie) that we both won’t eat, just to have it on the table.

This might be again related to the Orthodox religion. For the Orthodox church there are a few exceptions when it comes to fasting. One of which is when “receiving another’s hospitality”. But also when you live with a non-orthodox roommate, fasting should be adjusted so you can still have family dinners. Being good to family and friends, overrules
dietary restrictions when fasting. However, the use of animal products in any situation is against a vegan’s believes.

Veganism doesn’t exist in Greece

The Greeks can’t have a table without meat, fish, or feta. Although fasting is accepted, the culture does not understand someone being completely vegan. Explaining to the Greeks that I don’t eat any animal products, is like telling them I can fly to the top of Olympus. Greeks even refuse to agree with me that their own bean recipes are in fact vegan. A fully plant-based diet is something that they just don’t understand.

The workaround when eating at out in Greece, is to say that you want their fasting food, nistisimo. This is the closest translation of vegan food into Greek. Be careful when ordering though, because nistisimo does not exclude shellfish or honey so check this yourself! Besides, many Greeks will not believe that a foreigner knows the meaning of nistisimo. Whenever yiayia orders nistisimo food, she gets vegan. While for me it used to be food with cheese and eggs. I now say nistisimo chories yala, tiri, kai auga, fasting food without milk, cheese, and eggs. Finally I get what I want, or I believe so at least. You really have to describe what you don’t want, and never use the word vegan!

Can you be a vegan in Greece?

Yes! But it all depends on where you stay and for how long.

If you do your own cooking with Greek ingredients, your food will be amazing. If you stay in Athens or Thessaloniki, you will easily find vegan food around. Even if you eat with a Greek family, vegan is a good possibility. But when you travel to smaller cities or even villages, things will get more complicated. Especially when you rely on food from taverns and bakeries, like me.

Every new trip to Greece, I start full of positivity about vegan food. There are many tasty vegan mezes you can order in almost every tavern in Greece. Options include grilled vegetables, mushrooms, and salads. There is a lot to choose from, however, none of these are full dishes. Living on these for a week or 10 days is fine, but not longer. I notice after a while in Greece how I am hungry all the time and extremely tired during the day. Living on the road in Greece, it is very difficult to get a proper vegan meal. I cannot replace meat with nuts, seeds, and legumes the way I should. And after a while my body does no longer have sufficient protein and calcium for example.

For me, it means that when I travel in Greece for a longer time, I will eat fish or chicken about once a week. Just to give my body what it needs and make my travel easy. But if you want to stick to your vegan diet in Greece while traveling, it might be smart to calculate some home cooking time into your itinerary.

Frequently asked questions

Are there traditional Greek vegan dishes?

Yes! Traditionally, the Orthodox Greeks where eating according to a plant-based diet at least half a year! Examples of traditional Greek vegan foods are fakes (lentil soup), fassolada (bean stew), and fava (split peas puree)

Is vegan food well known in Greece?

Unfortunately not. In the big cities, like Athens and Thessaloniki, vegan restaurants are available. However, for many Greeks, vegans and vegetarians are strange and a plant-based diet is believed to be something fancy and expensive. Greece actually is amongst the countries of Europe with the lowest percentage of vegans and vegetarians.

Do Greeks eat a lot of meat?

Greeks believe in a balanced diet which does not exclude anything but also not includes meat on a daily basis. Salads are served with everything, and many home-cooked meals do not included meat or fish. Legumes and vegetables are widely used in the Greek kitchen.

Which Greek coffees are vegan-friendly?

Looking at the foam on a freddo espresso or frappe, you might believe these drink must contain at least some milk. Well they don’t! Frappe, freddo espresso and Greek coffee are all without any animal products. Besides, many Greek coffee places offer plant-based alternatives for milk, so you can even enjoy a (freddo) cappuccino.

Do you want to prepare yourself for a visit to Greece? Or do you simply want to learn all there is to known about this beautiful country? Leave your email below and get the answer to all your questions!

Further reading

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As a Dutch, I learned that when picking out a restaurant to eat, the fancier the place looks, the better the food will be. Of course, this rule is not a hundred percent safe. But good food, in general, can be found in places that care about the overall look of their restaurant as well as the comfort of their guests. Even our McDonalds-es look modern. They have soft chairs, and couches and provide different seating options so that every guest will find a place that suits him or her.

And then I went to Greece

Dining in Greece is far from what it is in The Netherlands. The food is amazing, that is difference number one. The prices are really low, difference number two. But very strange for me was difference number three, my butt would hurt at the end of every dinner. At least when I had really good food.

Every restaurant I go to in Greece, especially in the non-touristic areas, has the chairs that my grandmother’s grandmother used to have at her dining table. Even without the pillow, they used to have back then. What is wrong with the Greeks?

Tradition or style?

At first, I thought that it had to do with the type of food. Traditional Greek food has to come with a traditional greek chair. To give you the experience of visiting the greek grandmother in her kitchen for dinner. But once we went to Erimitis in Paxos, a fancy restaurant with the most paradise-like view. We ate modern cuisine at a very high price but I still found myself on a traditional wooden chair. This was the moment I knew that this is just another hilarious glitch in the greek culture. And if you visited their website, don’t be fooled by their pictures, the nice chairs were just for the photographer!

For me, it seems so funny how the greeks just don’t care about some things that I learned to care about. It is kind of a relief as well. It shows me that being good at one thing is more than enough. Here in The Netherlands, you will fail to be a chef, no matter how good you are, when you are not a stylist or did not hire one. Is this fair?

The taste of Greece comes with a sore butt

Whenever we travel around Greece, we now go to the tavern that has the worst look and the least comfortable chairs, and although we sometimes have to stand up in the middle of dinner because our butts hurt too much to stay seated, we eat the best food everywhere!

So when you find yourself in Greece, don’t go to a fancy restaurant because it looks more like what you are used to believing is a good restaurant. The lounge chairs and pillows come with overpaying, less fresh ingredients, or a lower quality chef. Take the wooden chair and enjoy the real tastes of Greece.