A taverna is not to be confused with a tavern. Tavernas are uniquely Greek restaurants, often small and intimate. The taverna is an integral part of Greek cuisine and of Greek culture.
Some of my earliest memories are of dinners with friends and family that lasted late into the night at small, local tavernas. There are three things to keep in mind before selecting a taverna if you are looking for an authentic experience.
1. Avoiding Tourist Traps
This one is a bit difficult, because even locals eat at restaurants located in highly populated areas like Athens or some of the well-known islands, and the trick is knowing how to spot them. Restaurants with a Maître d that stands outside and aggressively recruits you to eat at his restaurant, all while the tables behind him are empty, probably aren't going to be your first choices. In my opinion, these promoters don't always signal a tourist trap, so if you see one outside of a crowded area, try and listen to the languages that are being spoken in and around the taverna; if you hear a lot of Greek, it might be worth checking out!
Of course, if you're adventurous enough to have found yourself in a small town, you won't have to deal with these types of promoters. Don't be fooled by a menu posted outside, however - most of the best places don't even print them.
2. Always Ask for the Menu of the Day
As I mentioend in my first point, most traditional tavernas don't even have menus (there are a few exceptions, which we'll post more about in the future!). Your server will likely be the owner or a member of their family, so after they tell you what they've got for the day be sure to ask which is their favorite dish.
3. Order Plates to Share
Tavernas are a place to share! Start off with a few salads, some cheese for the table, at least one order of patates tiganites (home-cut french fries), and then something off of their house specialty list. In Laconia in the summer, for example, there are amazing boiled greens that go by the general name of horta, that are endemic to the region in which they are grown. We'll likely be dedicating an entire post to these unique greens in the future!
Tavernas like that one above are often featured in photos for their picturesque, outdoor seating atmosphere, but most actually stay open all year! Once it gets too cold, tables and chairs are carried inside for an even more intimate experience.
Have questions, or perhaps something to add? Feel free to leave a comment below.
Want to learn how to pronounce things like taverna, patates tiganites and horta?