Mezes and Ouzo in the Tavernas of Greece

After an evening walk along the Thessaloniki waterfront, I stopped at a ταβέρνα taverna on a quiet square to try my first Greek meal. Not being accustomed to prices outside Western Europe I decided, upon looking at the menu, that the dishes on offer must not come in very large portions. So I ordered until the price seemed right. Eleven euros later, I was faced with an entire loaf of bread, a dish of τζατζίκι tzatziki, a family-size χωριάτικη horiatiki salad, half a chicken in kebab form, a banana cream dessert, and a rather large pitcher of ouzo. Oops. I probably appeared a little gluttonous to the poor server who had to carry all that food across the street to my table, but such things happen when you arrive in a new country!

That’s not to say I wasn’t already familiar with Greek food – gyros, feta, and Chobani, right? But there’s so much more. In two weeks, I couldn’t possibly experience it comprehensively, but I got a small taste.

To celebrate my arrival in Vólos the next day, my friend Carmen and her mom took me to a waterfront taverna where we dined under a thatched umbrella with our feet in the sand. My hosts glanced briefly at the menu before rattling off a long order to the waiter. When he returned, he filled our table with every kind of Greek dish I had never imagined. There were mushrooms, eggplant, zucchini, and feta cooked in a variety of ways. There were specialties made from the fish, mussels, and octopus hauled in from the Pagasetic Gulf that same day. I learned that one specialty was unavailable because that particular fish doesn’t bite when the moon is fulI. These little dishes, called μεζές mezés, are like Spanish tapas – small plates meant for sharing with the entire table, a way to enjoy the company of friends and family.

A table of mezés is not complete without something to drink, and in Greece the beverage of choice is the anise-flavored ouzo. In Vólos, we partook of the similar-tasting regional specialty called tsipouro.  Both are served in a tall, narrow glass alongside a pitcher of cold water and a bucket of ice cubes. The technique is to chill it with the ice and dilute it with the water, which turns the clear liqueur into a milky white with a bold flavor reminiscent of black licorice. Since I love licorice, neither tsipouro nor ouzo disappointed!

Later in my trip, I enjoyed a similar meal of mezés with my friend Nikoletta in the northwestern city of Ioánnina. The restaurant was unremarkable from the outside – I probably would not have even recognized it as a restaurant had I passed by on my own. The sparsely-decorated interior consisted of a few tables surrounded by merry groups possibly on their second or third pitcher of ouzo, and we joined the rowdiest table, where Nikoletta’s friends were just finishing a round of mezés. It was time to order more, so the restaurant owner brought out a spiral notepad and handed it to us along with a pencil. Everyone gathered around to read the cursive handwriting scribbled on the page that listed out what the chef was cooking that day. One person grabbed the pencil and put a check mark next to everything the group wanted. The only Greek I could possibly understand scribbled in a spiral notebook is my calculus notes from college (assuming I remember calculus), so I had to trust my hosts’ selections, and once again was not disappointed. Incredible food and friendly company make for a great evening in Greece!

When you think of Greek specialties, feta probably comes to mind. And the crumbly cheese certainly features prominently on every menu in the country. However, I never saw feta served already crumbled, but rather whole, in rectangular blocks. You might order a mezé of feta coated with a savory sauce, or perhaps a block of baked feta smothered with honey and sprinkled with sesame seeds. And you can always be sure to find a generous slice of feta on top of your horiatiki.

Out of everything I ate in Greece, the horiatiki is the dish I have embraced the most. It’s a simple dish that is the literal definition of “peasant food” in Greek, but it’s nonetheless delicious and healthy. What is horiatiki? It’s Greek salad. No lettuce, only the best and freshest vegetables: tomatoes, cucumbers, green bell peppers, red onions, and tasty homegrown kalamata olives. Everything is tossed with red wine vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, and oregano, and topped with that ubiquitous slab of feta. After eating fresh horiatiki every day for two weeks in Greece, I decided I would never again require lettuce in a salad!

By the time I reached the end of my trip and found myself in a busy outdoor restaurant just behind the cliff-face of Santorini, I had gained some experience since that first clumsy order in Thessaloniki. Though I was dining by myself on my last night in the country, I ordered an array of mezés and some ouzo. Apparently I got it right this time. The waiter – bursting into a smile and enthusiastically approving of my order – wondered aloud if I had Greek blood in me. I assured him I did not, and he hurried back to the kitchen to put in my order.

Spread of Mezes, Vólos, Greece
The mezéthes at local restaurants in Greece never fail to disappoint!
  • Greek Dessert
  • Greek Sweets, Ioánnina, Greece
  • Fried Feta, Miliés, Greece
  • Greek Coffee, Vólos, Greece

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