Eating out in the Ionian Islands
The Greeks love eating out, sharing food with friends and enjoying the tasty ingredients their land and seas provide. The Ionian Islanders are no different and any visit to the archipelago will offer plenty of opportunity for memorable gastronomic experiences.
The strategic position of the Ionian Islands off the west coast of Greece at the base of the Adriatic Sea has bought invaders, traders and culinary traditions from all over the Mediterranean basin. Venetian influences can be found not only in the type of dishes, but also in their names: stufato, a rich Ionian stew, has Italian origins, and pasta dishes, such as pastitsio, a macaroni, ragú and béchamel dish, are fairly common. Greek food, of course, has much in common with that of its Turkish neighbours, and the long domination of the Ottoman Empire deeply influenced not only the style of cooking but also the very way meals are consumed in Greece. In the Ionian Islands, as on the mainland, dining is all about meze, lots of little taster plates to be shared convivially by friends and all the family - Greeks expect children, however young, to accompany their parents.
As one would expect from an archipelago, fresh fish and seafood are plentiful. Fishermen supply tavernas directly, often docking right outside and handing over the catch to the chef. In the interior of the islands, fish is less common but not missed, thanks to the abundance lamb, cheese, and a host of locally grown vegetables that make the tables groan and diners’ mouths water.
Good restaurants abound in the Ionian Islands and many have superb seafront positions, making it possible for kids to play on the beach after polishing off their lamb and chicken souvlaki!
Greek dining establishments vary enormously and most Greeks consider the best places to be those where the food is plentiful and well cooked, not necessarily where the setting or the cuisine is the fanciest. It is not uncommon, therefore, to find some of the best food in the most unexpected, off-the-beaten-track places. The combination of traditional cooking and outside influences has produced a vast range of restaurant types and here below are a few you might come across during your stay in the Ionian Islands:
Estiatorio - restaurants that have a wider selection of food and wine than tavernas, usually open for lunch and evening meals.
Taverna - a traditional Greek eating place, usually family run and open in the evenings only.
Psare Taverna - a taverna specializing in fresh fish.
Psistaria - a grill house, mostly found in the mountain villages and a favourite with the Greek people. Other than barbecued meats you will also be able to try Kokoretsi, a real Greek delicacy!
Pizzeria - there has always been a strong Italian influence in the Ionian Islands and this has extended to the cuisine too. Most places will serve a combination of Greek and Italian dishes.
Snack bars - Quick,easy and usually good value for money. A particular favourite with the Greeks are sweet or savoury crepes and toasted sandwiches.
Souvlatzidika - serving small souvlaki (speared kebabs), pita gyros or gyros plates, either pork or chicken.
Zakaroplasteion - patisserie selling cakes, sweets and ice creams.
Ouzeri - traditional bars offering meze snacks with the drinks.
Kafeneion - a meeting place for the local male population who manage to spend a great deal of the day talking mostly about politics and football while drinking coffee.
A few tips for eating out in the Ionian Islands
1. Fish tends to be expensive. Prices stated are per kilo not per portion, except for fish such as swordfish, whitebait, sardines and squid.
2. When looking at the menu, do not assume that all the dishes will be available. Most restaurants/tavernas, etc. work on a ‘seasonal availability’ basis, as it can be difficult to get hold of things locally that are not produced in Greece throughout the year.
3. In more traditional tavernas, do not be surprised if you are not offered a menu. Instead the owner will tell you what he has that day or invite you into the kitchen to see what is available. This is great if you do not know the name of a dish as you can just point!
4. Most dishes (unless you are in a smarter restaurant) will come only served with chips. You are expected to order your salad and greens separately. Do not be surprised if your request for ‘no chips’ is totally ignored or ‘with salad’ means sliced tomato only!
5. Do not be surprised if you go to a taverna early evening and it is empty. The Ionian Islanders will go out to eat from 21:00 onwards and in the height of summer it is not unusual for people to still be arriving to eat at midnight!
6. Finally, and especially in traditional tavernas, the Greeks do not expect either quick service or hot food. This is because eating out is a social event to last the whole evening and they believe that piping hot foot (as we like in the UK!) is bad for you. Waiters may not rush to your table when you sit down and the dishes you order may not arrive served altogether. Don’t worry, sit back relax and adjust to the Greek way of life!
What to order
Greek menus tend to offer various English spellings of their dishes, but you will get an idea of what to order from the following (many of which will be familiar if you go to Greek restaurants at home):
Taramosalata - a fish roe dip made with garlic, onion, oil and lemon juice
Tzatziki - a garlic and yogurt dip with cucumber and occasionally carrot
Melitzanosalata - an aubergine dip made with garlic, onions, lemon juice and oil
Tirokafteri - a spicy cheese dip made with feta, yogurt and peppercorns
Skordalia - for serious garlic lovers! This dip is made from mashed potato and garlic and often served as an accompaniment to fish
Dolmades - stuffed vine leaves often served with an egg and lemon sauce
Tiropita - cheese pie made with filo pastry
Spanokopita - spinach and feta cheese pie made with filo pastry
Saganaki - deep fried cheese served with a wedge of lemon
Gigantes - butter beans cooked in a tomato sauce
Kolokithakia - deep fried courgettes
Melitzana - deep fried aubergines
Loukaniko -spicy sausages
Mousaka - layers of aubergine or potato & mince meat topped with béchamel sauce
Papoutsakia - baked aubergines filled with mince meat and topped with cheese
Pastitsio - macaroni and mince meat in tomato sauce topped with béchamel sauce
Keftethes - meat balls flavoured with garlic and herbs
Stifado - meat stew flavoured with red wine, garlic, bay leaves, onion & tomato
Yemista - stuffed vegetables, mostly tomatoes or peppers. Sometimes the filling includes mince but not always. Check before you order if you are vegetarian
Yuvetsi - lamb and very small pasta pieces cooked in a dish, topped with a tomato sauce, baked in the oven
Kleftiko - lamb with vegetables, slow cooked in a parcel or stone dish
Souvlaki - grilled pork or chicken kebabs on a skewer with tomatoes and peppers
In Greece the idea of vegetarianism is still somewhat foreign! You will often be encouraged to eat something that has ‘just a little bit of meat’ in it and don’t be surprised if a vegetarian salad has the odd bit of ham included! Persevere and explain that eating meat is like going against your religion and it will work eventually. Salads are widely available and you might like to try the following vegetable dishes, with a side order of feta cheese. It is also acceptable to order a selection of starter dishes for your main course.
Fasolakia - long green beans in a tomato sauce
Briam - ratatouille style dish, sometimes including lentils.
Imam - a mix of peas, artichokes and potato in a tomato sauce.
Horta - boiled wild greens, similar to spinach, served with oil and fresh lemon.
Garithes - prawns, can be either small or king prawns
Astakos - lobster (you may need to order this the day before)
Kalamari - squid, deep-fried in batter
Barbounia - red Mullet, pan fried or grilled, served with oil and lemon.
Octapodi - octopus, grilled and served with lemon.
Ksifias - swordfish, meaty dense and filling
Kakavia - Greek fish soup
Gavros - small fish, deep-fried.
Atherina - whitebait
Marithes - a larger, sardine sized whitebait.
Kolloios - mackerel, usually grilled.
There are a wide variety of salads served at restaurants and tavernas in Greece. They are perfect for a light lunch or as an accompaniment to your main meal. Here are a few:
Horiatiki - Greek Salad, tomatoes, cucumber, onion, green pepper, black olives and feta cheese. Sprinkled with oil, vinegar and oregano.
Lachano - freshly grated cabbage, which needs a large dose of olive oil and lemon
Patzaria - sliced beetroot served with garlic and walnuts.
Marouli - lettuce salad, dressed with olive oil and lemon juice.
Tonosalata - tuna with lettuce, onions, cucumber and a mayonnaise sauce.
Chef’s Salad - tomato, cucumber, lettuce, onion, olives, yellow cheese and ham with a mayonnaise sauce.
You will not find a large selection of desserts on taverna menus. Instead fresh fruit sprinkled with cinnamon is a preferred end to a meal. Greeks are more likely to visit a café or Zaharoplasteio for a coffee and a sweet. We heartily recommend these ones, though, should you come across them!
Baklava - layers of filo pastry with chopped walnuts, cinnamon and topped with honey syrup.
Kadiafi - resembling shredded wheat; it is filled with almonds, cinnamon and topped with honey syrup.
Galaktobouriko - milk custard pie with slight orange flavour enclosed in filo pastry and dusted with cinnamon.
Halva - a very traditional sweet made with wheat, olive oil and almonds.
Yaorti - yogurt served with walnuts and honey.
Karidopita - walnut sponge cake soaked in syrup.
Ravani - sponge cake soaked in syrup and sprinkled with walnuts.