Greece Travel Blog
10/10/2008 Athens, Greece
The other day I left home with a higher purpose. I was going to try to find a cheap taverna in Mikrolimano in Pireaus. For those who don't know, Mikrolimano used to be called Tourkolimano which means Turkish harbor. After the Turkish invasion of Cyprus both Tourkolimano and Turkish Coffee became casualties. Turkish coffee became Greek coffee and Tourkolimano became Mikrolimano which means small harbor. (Turkish toilets were able to keep their name either because they were overlooked or they didn't know what else to call them).
Mikrolimano, as the name now implies, (micro means small,) is a small harbor full of fishing boats, pleasure craft and surrounded by cafes and restaurants, mostly expensive ones. They make their money mostly on rich Greeks who can afford it and tourists who don't know what they are getting into. Some of these restaurants offer a bounty to taxi drivers for bringing tourists to them. Imagine you are staying in an Athens hotel and you decide you want to have seafood because everyone knows that Greece is famous for its fresh seafood. So you ask the hotel to call a taxi and the driver says "I know a very good seafood place in a beautiful little harbor" and he takes you through the busy streets of Athens and into the busy streets of Pireaus and suddenly as if by magic you are in a setting that could be an island somewhere (an island with lots of apartment buildings). You are taken to a restaurant and the maitre d, for lack of a better word, seats you and the adventure begins. If you know what you are doing you can escape paying a reasonable amount for what may or may not be fresh fish. If you don't know what you are doing you may get sticker-shock when you see the bill.
Now don't get me wrong. I am not saying that these are rip-off places. But good, fresh fish is not cheap in Greece and these restaurants don't want you to buy the cheapest fish. They want you to buy the most expensive fish and the most expensive fish at one of these places can cost about 70 euros a kilo. Some of these places may try to get rid of their less-than-fresh fish on a stranger rather than on one of their steady customers who comes and expects the freshest fish so unless you know fresh fish inside and out, it is best not to play the game. But that does not mean you have to eliminate Mikrolimino from your plans. You can still go and have a nice fish dinner in a seaside setting and not blow your weeks budget on one meal. On my way to Pireaus on the metro I sent a text message to all my friends announcing that I was going to Mikrolimano to find a cheap, good seafood restaurant and if they had any recommendations. Most of them didn't bother replying because either they didn't know of any or thought I was on a fool's errand and wanted to stay out of it. The SMS replies I got were not very encouraging. "There are none. I can suggest some in other parts of Pireaus". "You don't go there for more than a souvlaki unless you are a rich American banker". George the taxi driver's son Dennis suggested Jimmy the Fish but told me he doesn't even take clients there anymore. But I had already made up my mind that I was going there and I would find a cheap seafood taverna even if I died in the process. The following is the results of my exploration:
First of all you need to get to Mikrolimano. Its easy even without a taxi. Just take the metro to Pireaus. Get off the train and leave the station and go up the escalator to the bridge that crosses the busy street and walk to your left (if you are facing the sea) until you come to the bus stop where you take the #20 Trolley. Your metro ticket is good for 90 minutes so you don't need to re-stamp it or use another but you will need one to get back so make sure you have two per person. Get off the Trolley at the stop called Skala or Mikrolimano. You will pass Zea harbor on the way so don't panic and jump off the bus. Stay on until you get to one of these stops which are written on signs at each stop. Once you get off the trolley find the stairs and start walking down and if you don't get lost you will find yourself in the harbor, though you may not realize it right away since the restaurants have taken over every square inch of space between the street and the water.
The next thing to do is take a nice walk and see all the restaurants for yourself. There are not just fish tavernas. There are also grill houses and fancy cafes and even a Turkish influenced restaurant called Bosphorus where you can get a large platter with a variety of interesting meats. My friend Helen recommends that and the salad with the haloumi cheese and balsamic glaze. One restaurant called Aritisti Thallasa is an upscale bistro type seafood place that would fit right in on the Upper East Side of NYC with a beautiful menu that looks like ads from Gourmet magazine. It should not take you long to realize that in some of these places you are out of your element. If you look at the decor you should be able to tell the difference between the restaurant that pays a couple thousand euros a month or owns the building and has been here for thirty years, or the restaurant that bought the right to open here for a million euros and pays almost that in rent. The latter outnumber the former by about ten to one. But don't give up hope because there are three tavernas which unless you really screw up, you should be able to eat at for a reasonable price. They are Captain John's, Botsaris and Bagg-Eir Fish tavernas. You will notice that the tables and the decor are much simpler than the other places and their prices a bit lower. For example their barbounia (red mullet) is between 45 and 55 euros a kilo instead of 65 or 70. They also have the inexpensive fish like fried gavros, kollios, gopa, kalamarakia (always frozen when it is cheap) and sardelles for around 6 euros a plate which is typical of anywhere in Athens.
When they say 'fresh fish' does that mean the fish is fresh? Maybe. They will tell you vevaos (of course it is) when you ask and they may be telling you the truth. But I would not bet on it for the following reason. Economics. If you buy 10 kilos of fresh fish and sell 8 on Thursday, you will have to get rid of your remaining two kilos before you sell Friday's fresh fish because if you just throw it away or feed it to the cats there is no point in being in business. With the cheap fish (which are the healthiest by the way) its not such a big deal. The Greeks will buy a kilo of lavraki or barbounia and get a plate of gavros or grilled sardines as an appetiser, so they will sell and even if they don't they are cheap. But no businessman wants to be stuck with a few extra kilos of barbounia. So they will sell it whenever they are able to whoever they think will buy it and not make a fuss. So unless you can look a fish in the eye and tell it is fresh, or you are with someone who can, or someone who knows the owner or someone who works at the restaurant then it is risky. Also even if you know a fresh fish when you see one you need to know what a kilo is. Don't let the waiter pick you out a kilo of fish after you have decided it is fresh enough to eat. Watch them weigh the fish whether it is a rofos, a lobster or a dozen giant shrimp. You can't weigh it after it is cooked. For example this barbounia in this photo is supposedly half a kilo. To me it looks more like 3-400 grams but the people were so friendly and nice that I trusted them. That's a mistake. Of course they are going to act like your best friend but that does not mean that you should trust them as if they are your best friend.
I ate at Captain John's. They were very friendly. They served home-made taramasalata, horta and I ordered half a kilo of barbounia. It was not the freshest I have ever had but it was not bad. It was OK. Probably as fresh as anything you had in Mykonos or Santorini, not as fresh as Sifnos or Lesvos or somewhere on the coast of the Peloponessos. But barbounia is a special fish and when not fresh it just tastes like fish instead of the sweet taste it should have. The bread was yesterday's for sure. It does not take a fish expert to know when you are being served yesterday's bread. So I asked them to either grill it or bring me bread from today. They grilled it with olive oil and oregano and it was delicious. I shouldn't have had to ask though. So my experience was OK. They didn't go out of their way to make it a memorable experience and it is not like they didn't have the time. There was one other couple there besides me that was eating. But I left feeling that if this was representative of the other two cheap places that you could get a decent meal cheaply as long as you stuck to the 6 euro fish and got the house wine in a carafe instead of the expensive Greek wines. Plus the view of the harbor was nice(photo) and I could sit at the window and throw my leftover bread on the water and watch the kefalo (grey mullet) fight over it. Make sure you ask them to grill the bread even if it is fresh. (Just point and say tis ska-ras)
But you know what? Why bother to go all the way to Mikrolimano where the restaurants are packed so tightly around the harbor that you can't even walk next to the sea and you have to be vigilant if you want to escape for less than a couple hundred euros? Leave this area for the rich Athenians and the people who use taxi drivers as culinary advisors.
Instead get off the #20 a couple stops before at Zea Marina, also known as Pasalimani. Its a much larger and much more interesting harbor with wide sidewalks and cafes overlooking the sea. There are even some sunken boats and ancient ruins. You can walk around and look at some of the most beautiful mega-yachts in the world, as well as fishing boats and yachts boats for people who can't afford or don't need mega. There is a shortage of seafood restaurants in the harbor itself but if you don't care about fish there is a great little souvlaki joint called Taka-Taka. If you continue walking around the harbor (with the sea on your left) you will come to Akti Themistokleos which is the southern coastal road of Pireaus and there are a number of small fish-tavernas and ouzeries like Botsalo, Samaria (from Crete), Klepsydra, O Kalyvas, Solon Ouzadiko, Ta Brakia Tis Peiraikis, and if you can walk that far Diasimos which is one of the most popular fish tavernas in Athens-Pireaus and keeps expanding one storefront at a time, one floor at a time. Unlike Mikrolimano which is a sheltered bay, these restaurants face the open sea which means if it is hot in the summer they will be cool, if it is spring or fall you will need a sweater and if it is winter you will be sitting inside. From Diasimos you can see the ships entering and leaving the port of Pireaus. If you don't want to walk all the way from Zea to Diasimos there is an easier way. Take the #904 bus from right next to the Pireaus metro station and get off at the Pereiaki stop. If you walk to your right (with the sea behind you) you will come to all the above fish restaurants and a few more. If you walk to your left you will come to O Faros psarotaverna (the Lighthouse fish taverna) and To Nisi. For the truly adventurous there is a seafood taverna right next to the entrance of the Navy Academy that is such a well kept secret that I am not even going to tell you how to get to it.
For the true ship-watchers who can't enjoy seafood without a parade of vessels go to the statue called The Lion of Pireaus and there is a cafe ouzerie called 'To Liondari Tou Peiraia' which has an extensive menu the features seafood mezedes and main courses such as grilled octopus, gavros marinatos, lobster by the kilo (70 euros), fried octopus balls (balls made out of ground up octopus not their balls), mussels, kalamaria and lots more. Its a cafe too so you can just come for a coffee and watch the ships go by a few feet away. Its open year round but closed when weather is so bad that nobody in their right mind wants to sit outside. This is the easiest of all the restaurants to get to. From Syntagma Square you can catch the #040 on Fileninon (by Xenofontos st) and the last stop is right there. Just find the Zodoxou Pigi (the big brown church with the clock tower) and you will see the restaurant in the little square under the statue of the lion. To go back to Athens just get back on the bus. Its 45 minutes to an hour each way depending on traffic. You can also take the 049 from Omonia Square. In fact it happens to be right at the terminal for the A1(Voula), B1(Ano Glyfada), 217(Dafni Metro Station), 229, 843 (Perama and some other buses so you can get here from just about anywhere.
So there you have it. I started out to review Mikrolimano and instead have written a whole page about eating seafood in Pireaus. You don't have to go all the way to Pireaus but its always nice to be able to look at the sea while you eat fish, fresh or not. And if it is not fresh, well at least you are at the sea and whatever you are eating is more fresh than say fish-sticks or whatever kind of fish they use in fish and chips or even some of the sushi you may have eaten in your life. To many Greeks the freshness of seafood is of utmost importance. For me it isn't. I am not the kind of guy who is going to go out of his way to eat a fresh fish and pay 50 euros a kilo and up when I am just as happy with some taramasalata (comes in a jar), gavros marinatos (marinated), grilled octopus (rarely fresh since it mostly comes from China), fried kalamarakia (frozen) or bakalaros me skordalia (salted cod with garlic-sauce). If I have a couple of these, a few olives, a karafaki of good ouzo (Babatzim, Dimino, Barbayannia, Pitsalidis) and the sea, I am happy, and if you are reading this you probably feel the same way. Though to be honest with you after an ouzo or two some fresh fried barbounia can really make you appreciate seafood. And if you are in that kind of mood who cares what it costs? You can just eat souvlakia for the next 5 days.
For more seafood restaurants see www.athensguide.com/restaurants.html