Nena Dimitriou

Thessaloniki is for (taste) lovers. Before Athens became the gastronomic destination that it is today, this port city in northern Greece was, for decades, where Athenians went to dine and drink. There are also those – like journalist Nena Dimitrou – that believe the movement to modernise Greek cuisine started in Thessaloniki. The food and travel editor for publications Gastronomos and Greece Is as well as Oinochoos magazine highlights the food world’s movers and shakers in her favourite Greek city.

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Thessaloniki: A Food Destination for Athenians

Although I’m not from Thessaloniki, I studied there and go back very often. Thessaloniki used to be an entertainment destination for Athenians in the 90s and early 2000s. It was typical for an Athenian to spend a weekend in Thessaloniki to eat well, shop and enjoy a vibrant night out in clubs and at live music shows. It was long after my university years that I realised how important the food scene is to the city. The food was cheap in comparison with Athens and people used to go out every night, mostly to socialise. Students enjoyed places around Plataea Aristotelous: a main square whose surrounding alleyways are filled with tavernas and bars. Of course, my food criteria was very different back then, so when I started going back as a food editor I was amazed. In the world of food, most things happen in Thessaloniki before they do in Athens: from making over street food culture to the rise of neo-tavernas. 

“The Coolest Place: Now and Forever” 

Around 2013, a bunch of young chefs changed the perception of food in Thessaloniki by pairing traditional recipes with local ingredients and new cooking techniques in a playful and accessible way. They were the pioneers of the new-age restaurants you see around the country. One person at the centre of this movement is Yiannis Loukakis. His new-age kafenio (classic Greek cafe) Moúrga is, for me, the coolest place: now and forever. It’s where I want to have my first lunch when I land in Thessaloniki. What’s interesting is that in the beginning, Thessalonians didn’t go there because they found that the style of food there catered more to Athenians. Yannis is very strict about using fresh, local and organic ingredients and goes to the market to find the best that’s out there, from extra virgin olive oil to organic flour and veggies. The menu changes daily based on availability. The first time I went to Moúrga, Yannis served me a tomato, cut in quarters with some fleur de sel, early harvested olive oil and some warm bread, and disappeared in his particularly discreet way. Moúrga serves wild fish and seafood paired with unusual combinations that somehow manage to still look and taste like Greek food. There you can eat the catch of the day cooked in lemon sauce or grilled over charcoal. Do not leave the place without tasting the langoustines in the pan, with goat’s butter, garlic and thyme. Masterpiece. That’s what I get every time I go there to eat. The atmosphere there is really calming for your soul.

A Modern Greek Bistro Like No Other 

Yannis also opened a modern Greek bistro called +trofi (pronounced “Sintrofi”) serving a different style of food, but food with the same feeling of simplicity. It offers a menu of about 12 different dishes every day. You could have anything from seafood carpaccio to a goat stew. Everything is made in-house from scratch: cheese, butter and sourdough using a great range of flour. He uses ingredients like Florina peppers, Greek bottarga and Greco Negro, Greece’s indigenous black pig that’s only found in two or three regions. I had tuna tartare there served in a wheat and tomato water broth, and a really nice take on strapatsada (tomato and feta scramble) with smoked eel and spicy little peppers. It has a great natural wine list with producers from around Greece. I also enjoy ordering the local cheese plate. The bistro has an open-fire kitchen and is located in Ladadika, a touristy neighbourhood near the port renowned for having a lot of bars, clubs and restaurants. 

The Most Cretan Food Outside of Crete

The Ladadika neighbourhood has witnessed a revival over the past few years and you could say that Xaroupi was the torch that shined a light on the area’s possibilities. The restaurant was opened by Cretan chef Manolis Papoutsakis. You will not eat Cretan food like this outside of Crete, which is what’s unique about it. He recently opened Deka Trapezia, a modern taverna with a focus on mezze and tapas, where all of the food is served in relatively small plates. Manolis is great at taking the traditional cuisine he’s learned from his family and reinterpreting it in an ultra-modern way. The menu changes regularly, but you can have things like patatas bravas with Cretan apaki (a ham indigenous to the island) or red mullet in savoro (a spicy sauce of vinegar, rosemary, garlic and olive oil that is used to preserve fish in Greece). You can also have tsigariasto which is goat or sheep meat cooked for hours in olive oil and the animal’s fat until tender with concentrated flavours. It’s a very rustic, meat-heavy dish that’s rooted in Cretan tradition. Manolis serves it with creamy trahana, which can be made with either semolina, wheat flour, bulgur or cracked wheat mixed with fermented milk, buttermilk or yoghurt into a thick, pebbly consistency. In every plate, Manolis likes to use small amounts of an ingredient that sounds totally irrelevant but when you taste it, you change your mind every time. It’s a cosy place with a nice wine offering and you can go there with friends as well as family.

A Cafe That Takes its Music Very Seriously

I think Thessaloniki has one cafe for every 10 inhabitants. It has too many. Right opposite Deka Trapezia is a nice coffee place called Father Coffee & Vinyls which has a record shop inside, so it takes its music very seriously. I like the spirit of the place. The people that hang around there are a small community that listen to good music, drink quality coffee and are into pop culture. I like the mindset of Chris, the co-owner, and how much he’s invested in everything that he does. I like the location because it’s a few steps from the monumental White Tower of Thessaloniki: you’re overlooking the sea and can see Navarinou Square and the castles whenever you look towards the upper side of town. 

A Coffee for Every Mood

Another specialty coffee shop I like is 17 Coffee (or Decaepta) on Alexandrou Svolou. It’s a really small place that serves Athens’ Samba coffee and also serves cocktails. You go there for a quick drink or to have your coffee to-go. The location is great to get a dose of the city’s vibe and to people-watch. In terms of coffee consistency, I would say Valenio nails it. The owner barista is very involved in the world of specialty coffee competitions and roasts in-house. You can always just go to Olimpou Street near the Roman Forum and choose a random cafe, not for the product but for the location and being surrounded by antiquities from 2000 years ago. Thessaloniki is amazing like that: you can be anywhere in the city having a gyro next to remnants of ancient civilisations. 

Street Food From Around the World, but With a Greek Accent

Surfer Maya makes filling gourmet sandwiches and has its own take on street food classics from many cultures. It will make tacos with gyro meat and sandwiches using high-quality sourdough, great meat cuts and homemade sauces. Its desserts are also great. Its Greek milk pie, for example, is made with croissant-style pastry instead of phyllo and filled with the milk custard stuffing used in Epirus-style galatopita (milk pie).

“A Local Breakfast Delicacy That’s Like a Croissant, But Better”

I like Thessaloniki’s bougatsa. It’s a local breakfast delicacy that’s like a croissant, but better. There are so many places that make it but I go to Bougatsa Bandis, which isn’t in the city centre but is pretty famous. It’s a family-run bakery near a church and on Sundays people will go there to worship, then eat a bougatsa. It’s worth getting up early and heading there at dawn when the shop opens because that’s when the bougatsa is made fresh and you can have it warm straight from the oven. The owner’s roots are in Smyrni in Asia Minor. He’s a cute guy and you couldn’t see him not being a bougatsa maker. It’s almost cinematic watching him prepare the dough by hand. He does it the traditional way by layering 12 sheets of pastry on the bottom and 12 on top so you end up biting into 24 sheets of buttery goodness. When his father opened the shop in 1969, they only made the plain bougasta with either powdered sugar and cinnamon or with semolina cream. They have added a few filling options now.

A Classical Restaurant With Great Soutzoukaki 

Diagonios is a Thessaloniki classic and has an old-school air. The servers have been working there for ages and will take off your coat or jacket on arrival. You get the sense of it being family-run which I really like. I also like the white tablecloths on the table and that they serve the roasted meat with just some seasoning and maybe mustard. Imagine going to a great, old-fashioned, British restaurant for Sunday roast, only Thessaloniki-style. You will have the same dish cooked with the same level of detail every time. It’s a great place for soutzoukaki (oblong meatballs) cooked on the charcoal grill. 

A Classic Dive Bar Serving Jazz, Soul and Straight-Up Drinks

There’s a massive cocktail culture in Thessaloniki now, but the city’s going-out scene wasn’t always synonymous with cocktail bars. People went out for the classics and straight-up (no ice) alcohols and bars such as eternal favourite The Residents were mostly frequented for the music they played. One place that I love is called On The Road. It’s the only bar I still go to. It’s a classic dive bar that overlooks the seafront and is all wooden inside. Although it’s called “On The Road”, by the end of the night you feel like you’re the general of this ship. You drink straight-up whiskey and gin there. The music is a combination of jazz and soul and the crowd is a little older which is nice.

Where I Go When I’m Craving a Cocktail

If I want a dry martini or a Negroni, I’ll go to Vogatsikou 3 which is renowned for its cocktails. Gorílas is in the range of cocktail bars some may call “third-wave”. It’s a loud bar that attracts the youngsters: think bubblegum cocktails and fluorescent drinks, but done well. The syrups and mixers are all made in-house. 

Markets Where You Can Enjoy a Taste of Greek Food and Culture

Visitors that want to venture out should walk in the Kapani Market or Stoa Modiano. These are enclosed markets and home to producers of everything from cheese and cold cuts to meat and nuts. There is a great ouzeri in the Kapani Market called Stou Mitsou. It’s nice because you’re in the heart of the agora (central public space) and can absorb the smells and sounds while enjoying smoked fish and a salad. It’s where workers in the agora eat, but also the kind of place you would go to have an ouzo with your dad or to meet an old friend. 

The City’s Old-School Pastry Shops

Thessaloniki has really nice old-school pastry shops. I like the pourakia (wafer cigars stuffed with praline cream) at Hatzifotiou. They’re really popular and a treat that you would take to, say, your mother-in-law to earn extra brownie points. The greatest of them all, is Mourouzi Patisserie, a classic pastry shop that I love, especially for its biscuit-like pastafrola (jam pie) and the armenovil (semifreddo dessert with caramalised almonds). The decor is so retro and highly Instagrammable.

The Store I Always Visit When I Visit Thessaloniki

I never leave Thessaloniki without a visit to Harilaos. It’s an old nut store in Thessaloniki’s agora that sources the best nuts and dried fruits from all over Greece. The shop owner is a nice and gentle man who knows the varieties so well that you always leave feeling richer in knowledge about so many different things. I love talking to him. Macadamia is my favourite thing at Harilaos. He dry-roasts them in-house, so they’re not fried, and the macadamia comes out so buttery. You can also find the best quality local almonds, dried tropical fruits, nut butters and nut milks. It’s paradise.

A One-Stop-Shop Grocery for Fine Greek Ingredients

Greek food pioneers Ergon opened an agora close to the Thessaloniki airport. I’m always curious and eager to go there and check what’s new in the world of Greek groceries. I like the relationship that the Douzis brothers (founders of Ergon) have with food. I find their philosophy to be holistic in a way. They source the ingredients; they package a lot of the stuff beautifully; they cook and serve food; they have a hotel with a huge grocery shop in Athens; and this grocery store in Thessaloniki is massive and extensive. 

An Introduction to Thessaloniki Winemakers

There’s a winery near Thessaloniki with a museum inside that you can visit called Ktima Gerovassiliou. You could say that they’re the masters of malagouzia (Greek white grape variety). There’s also Kechris Winery, a family winery that’s been producing retsina (a type of Greek resinated wine made using white grape varieties – in this case roditis and sauvignon blanc – and pine resin) for a century. In Macedonia in northern Greece, wine regions such as Naousa, Florina and Goumenissa produce exceptional wines. The latter is about an hour’s drive (80km) from Thessaloniki and is mostly known for its red grape varieties. My favourite wineries there are natural wine legends Tatsis and Chatzivariti Winery. If you don’t have enough time to leave the city, you can go to Moby Dick or the Whale, my favourite wine store, to load up on terroir wines from Goumenissa, Greece and the Mediterranean. It is housed in a beautiful building near the seafront. I like to go and ask staff for a glass of whatever they recommend and then sit near the huge windows to enjoy it.

Photography Credit: Alex Antoniadis

Our guides are fact-checked and updated regularly. Read more here. 

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