Part of the fun of a yacht-charter vacation in Greece is sampling the native cuisine at local restaurants, either before, during, or after your charter. The cost of eating out is generally quite reasonable, and there are multiple establishments to choose from almost everywhere you go. There are two types of Greek restaurants, estiatoria (more formal) and tavernas (good, inexpensive, home-style food), as well as various fast-food-chain options. Unless you want a very fancy meal, tavernas are your best bet for a truly local experience when eating out in Greece. But no matter which type of restaurant you choose, here are some things you should know before you go.
Menus are almost always in both Greek and English, but if you’re handed an all-Greek menu when you’re seated, just ask for one in English -- most places have them. In addition to telling you what’s available, these Greek-to-English translations can provide light dinner entertainment; one I saw recently had translated grilled shark to “Grilled Arrogant.” (I suppose sharks are). A more commonly seen mistranslation is “roast lamp” instead of “roast lamb,” but there’s a good reason for this one! In the Greek alphabet, there is no letter “B” – their similar-looking letter is pronounced veeta. The “b” sound is written by combining the Greek letters mi and pi. Hence, “lamp”! Menu amusement is part of the fun of dining out in Greece.
One thing to bear in mind: Not everything that appears on menus in Greece is actually available at all times. If an item has no price next to it, it usually means they don’t have it. It’s not uncommon for them to run out of even some of what’s listed with a price. It’s a good idea to ask before you get your heart set on something to see whether or not there’s any left.
The customary eating times in Greece are probably the one thing that non-Europeans have a tough time getting used to. The operative word here, at least for lunch and dinner, is “late!”
For most Greeks, breakfast is a non-event: they don’t sit down for a large breakfast, but eat spinach or cheese or sausage pies either on foot en route to wherever they’re going, or in their cars on the way to work (usually while talking on their cell phones). Breakfasts are widely available, many lavish, but most of these cater to foreigners. You may see these advertised as either “English” or “American” breakfast on signs outside or on menus.
If you’re a coffee hound, it’s best to learn the right way to order it here – even at Starbucks! If you want brewed coffee, ask for “filter” or “filtrou” -- also sometimes called “French coffee” -- otherwise you’ll get foamy Nescafe instant, the coffee of choice among Greeks. (The iced version of Nescafe, called a “frappe,” is delicious on a hot day with milk and sugar added. You’ll see Greeks drinking these yummy concoctions at sidewalk cafes everywhere!). One final breakfast note: If you order “tost” here, as it’s ubiquitously misspelled on English menus, you will get what most people consider to be a grilled cheese sandwich. If you simply want toasted bread with butter and jam, ask for “plain grilled bread” or psomi sto grille.
Greeks eat lunch between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.; dinner between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. Tavernas usually open for lunch by 12 noon or so, but most don’t gear up to serve dinner until about 8 p.m.; though in the islands, they cater more to the early-eating tourists. If you go to a taverna at 8 p.m., it will likely be empty. By the time you leave, it will be full. Most meals are eaten leisurely; Greeks do not rush their meals. You can sit at a taverna for literally hours, enjoying a multi-course meal, and the establishment will not take offense or try to rush you. In tavernas, the food comes out fairly quickly, so it’s a good idea to start your dinner with mezedes, or “little bites” --- the Greek version of tapas – and work up to the main course. Portions are usually large, so don’t order one for yourself only – order a few for the table to share. Often, a combination of delicious mezedes can make a meal.
Before ordering food, there are some basic things you should be aware of to avoid potentially costly misunderstandings.
Fresh fish and seafood, unless it’s in a prepared dish, is priced on all menus by the kilo (about two U.S. pounds), so the price that appears on the menu is the price per kilo of whatever you’ve selected. Often, you’ll be able to view the fresh fish on display and select the one you want. Ask them to weigh it for you before you decide to avoid sticker shock!
Individual meat cuts, such as beef or pork steaks, are not priced by the kilo, but per entree, but beware: The Greeks have a tendency to overcook their meats, so if you want it cooked to anything less than very well done, make sure you specify this.
Greek salads and other salads should never be ordered as a first course for only one person -- they’re meant for a table of about four people. The same is true for the other items listed as starters, or mezedes.
Greek wine is excellent, but by the bottle in restaurants, it’s much more expensive than the other alternative, which I highly recommend: Most tavernas have locally made wine in barrels, called “varelissio.” It’s usually very good and about one third of the price of bottled wine. They will usually allow you to taste it before you order. Warning: It can be strong! Contrary to popular belief, all white wine in Greece is not retsina, it’s generally dry white – but ask before you order if you want to be sure. The varelissio rose in Greece is also extremely good – dry, not sweet. Wine is also priced by the kilo and is served in cute little carafes. One-quarter kilo is about two glasses; one-half kilo is about five glasses; one kilo is about 10 glasses (in small-sized Greek wine glasses; like juice glasses).
Greek beer is also excellent, the most popular brand being Mythos lager. Carbonated soft drinks are usually ordered by their brand name, such as Coke, Fanta, or Sprite. Water is always put on the table, usually by the bottle, for which there sometimes is a nominal charge. If you fancy fizzy mineral water, you must order “water with gas” – Souroti, a Greek brand, is delicious and popular. Ordering a soft drink using the general term “soda” will get you just that – a glass of club soda!
Dessert, in many tavernas, is on the house. Often a smiling waitperson will appear at meal’s end bearing a large platter of fresh fruit, such as watermelon, or yogurt topped with a “spoon sweet” – homemade fruit preserves, or individual slices of sweet semolina cake. All are utterly delicious.
Finally, a note on tipping: Many establishments include a service charge, so be sure you check your bill carefully before you leave a gratuity. Here, the American standard of 15 to 20 percent is considered most generous – 10 percent is the widely accepted rate, and will be happily accepted.
Armed with these simple basics, you’ll be ready to enjoy one of the best experiences in Greece: Lingering over delicious food and wine at a waterfront taverna, watching the full moon rise over Odysseus’s wine-dark sea.