If you’re visiting the old Plaka area of Athens, Greece, you’re likely to find a number of restaurants offer high-priced, mediocre food, ultimately getting categorized as “tourist traps” by many travelers.
My first visit to the Plaka was years ago on a cruise tour. I remember getting whisked around from place to place, landing in what seemed at first to be a very authentic Greek tavern, but wound up being the stopping point for every cruise ship in port that day. The charming and quaint family-owned cafe, complete with its antique tablecloths and rickety woven chairs, soon felt like an overcrowded prison cell as 200 people were squeezed into a space that normally held 60.
Fast forward a number of years to my next visit to Athens, and I decided to come back and explore the Plaka — this time on my own. First up on the agenda was tracking down a traditional Greek restaurant that was not overrun with tourists and offered great food with reasonable prices.
After much research and wandering, we discovered To Kafeneio. Tucked away on one of the small alley streets near the popular graffiti walk, To Kafeneio was once a private residence that was built in the 1800’s.
To Kafeneio underwent a facelift just before the 2004 Summer Olympics, but it still retains the Old World charm and quaint feel I was so desperately seeking during my first visit to Athens years before. If the weather is nice, sit outdoors at the marble tables that line the small alleyway, or opt to stay inside with a more formal yet old-fashioned decor.
We arrived early, as they were just opening for lunch, and took one of the outdoor tables looking up to the Acropolis. Our server greeted us enthusiastically and plopped down giant wooden menus with what appeared to be hand-painted details on the covers.
The massive menu — which had English — was filled with interesting details on the restaurant, the foods, and offered an expansive wine list. According to the historical notes in the menu, to Kafeneio became the first restaurant in Greece offering more than 30 different wines in a carafe. We opted to try their own private label wines — the white, rose, and the red, all of which were perfect for our massive lunch.
I should point out before getting into the dishes that we loved the food so much, we came back again when we were in Athens a few months later for the TBEX Travel Blogging Conference. The man waiting on us, who I believe to be one of the owners, recognized us and welcomed us back.
One of the things I like most about their menu is that is covers what is fresh and what is frozen. Various parts of Greece are known for specialty pies and dishes, but they aren’t necessarily local to Athens. Certain pies from the various islands are made fresh, frozen, and then shipped to Athens.
Here are some of our favorite dishes that we’d recommend from our visits to To Kafeneio.
I always have to start with an order of fresh Greek Olives, no matter what restaurant I’m in. Many of the stores along the Plaka sell vacuum-packed Greek olives, ready for travel. They say carry-on approved and I am sure they are within Europe, but I wouldn’t necessarily risk it on US bound flights.
Another must-try for me at any Greek restaurant is an order of Tzatziki. It’s great as an appetizer or accompaniment to grilled meats. Tzatziki is typically made with strained yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice or red wine vinegar. Some restaurants will sprinkle fresh herbs on top – maybe a little dill or parsley.
Aubergine (Eggplant) Salad
While this is called a salad, I consider it more of a dip. This is a combination of eggplant, sundried tomatoes, smashed olives, olive oil, and even a bit of honey.
Spicy Cheese Salad
Like the Aubergine Salad, I consider the Spicy Cheese Salad more of a dip. Made with feta cheese, fresh peppers, dried red pepper, and olive oil, this has now become one of my favorite appetizers. I had never ordered it before, but after taking a cooking class in Athens, I am hooked. Don’t miss this one!
Fava “Split Peas”
I learned a lot about fava while traveling on the island of Santorini, where fava is grown. This is not necessarily an easy dish to find in many restaurants, as it’s considered to be a “rare village” recipe by some. The yellow split peas, or fava, are boiled with onion and olive oil, and then served with lemon and onion.
With all those delicious dips, you can’t skip out on bread. To Kafenaio makes their own bread and they are all rather amazing!
Saganaki – Grilled Hard Cheese
Saganaki is often mistakenly referred to as the cheese, but it actually refers to any number of dishes cooked in a small frying pan. This version is the standard grilled hard traditional Greek cheese served with fresh lemon on top.
Saganaki – Hard Cheese with Honey Sauce
This version is made by grilling the cheese and then adding a homemade spicy honey sauce. Both versions are good, but this one is my favorite.
This is one of the frozen pies available at To Kafeneio. This is a more rare pie, hailing from the north of Greece, made with pastrami sausage, kaseri cheese, and spices.
Meatballs with THE Sauce
This dish is often sold out at To Kafeneio. The first time we didn’t get to try it, but it was definitely worth the wait. These meatballs are made with a special red sauce, created by Nikolas, the first chef at To Kafeneio. The recipe dates back more than 100 years.
The translation is “food for drunks.” They recommended this to us when the meatballs were sold out during our fist visit. Best dish! It’s made with small chunks of beef, peppers, cinnamon, and onion, all boiled with wine and tomato.
Sadly, we don’t have the notes on the actual name of this dish, but it was a special not listed on the menu and I believe it was a special “grandma’s” style dish. Despite neither of us remembering the name, it was too delicious not to include a photo of!
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