You’ve found a Greek taverna that looks good to you. There are lots of people eating there, so you know the food is fresh.
Getting a table
You survey the restaurant and locate an empty table. There is no host or hostess so you have to take care of yourself. You walk over to the table. If there are more of you than there are chairs, get two or three adjoining tables and put them together. If the table is dirty, wait and someone will clean it up. If it is clean, sit down and wait. There is no assigned waiter to your table. You may have to wait for a few minutes.
If the restaurant is busy, you may have to wait for more than a few minutes. Be patient. This is the perfect time to look around and see what everyone else is eating. If this is a fish restaurant don’t order meat. If it is a meat restaurant don’t order fish. Some restaurants, especially at lunch time, have items on the steam table that you can choose from. If you don’t see the steam table from the dining area, it doesn’t mean they don’t have “magirefta“, (prepared specials). It’s perfectly ok to ask if you can go into the kitchen to see what’s cooking, although this is a bit of a dying tradition as restaurants around Athens become trendier and more upscale.
Greek taverna table rules
When the server, or a “helper” does finally come to your table, he or she will bring along a paper tablecloth, glasses and a pitcher of water, a basket with bread, your silverware and your napkins (usually these last items are in the bread basket, beneath the bread, although, in some trendy “traditional” restaurants, the new style is to have them in drawers at one end of the table). In either case, show your cultural skills by helping them out as any proud Greek would: pick up the salt and pepper and napkin holder so they can lay down your tablecloth. If you’re dining outdoors, they’ll need to lean over the table to clip the additional tablecloth, it’s nice to help them by clipping your side of the tablecloth.
If this is the helper, it will often be a younger member of the family running the taverna and they may ask if you want something to drink.
Don’t be surprised if your server disappears after setting the table. If it’s busy they will try to deliver food to their other tables and get paid by the tables that want to leave before returning to take your order.
You may or may not have an actual menu, but even if there is one, wait! Your waiter will tell you the specials for the day, starting with the “appetizers” then on to salads and finally main plates. We usually forgo the typical one main plate per person rule and order a number of appetizers (mezedes or small plates), a salad, and perhaps one or two main plates to share (depending on the number of people we’re dining with). If you are ordering potatoes (french fries), I recommend telling your server to bring them with your main plate, otherwise they will arrive first, along with your appetizers and salad, leaving you with a plate of cold potatoes to eat with your meat or fish.
If you decide to order the house wine, you can ask for a taste, in the past I would always recommend the house white (lefko krasi), but Greek vitners are coming into their own and I’ve had some great house Reds in the past few years. That said, I always ask for a taste before committing to it (you can ask for a taste of red and white). The white wines are usually dry and pleasant. No fanfare, long bouquets, interesting noses. Just refreshing and easy to drink with any food. White wine is served chilled. Order wine by the 250 ml, 500 ml (meeso kilo) and even a liter. Wine is served in a clay pitcher or a glass carafe but most often in an orange aluminum cylindrical container. The meeso kilo (half liter) is a good size for two people. It is best not to order the kilo size as it gets warm on a hot day. House wines are inexpensive, at the time of this writing the cost is about €8 per kilo.
Beer is sold cold in 500 ml bottles and is not much more expensive than if you bought it at the supermarket or the newsstand / kiosk (yes, you can get your newspaper and your beer at the same place!).
Another option if you are going the mezedes (or small plates) route is to choose ouzo. In some of the more upscale restaurants we like, we’ve found that we can keep the size of our bill down by ordering ouzo instead of a fancier bottle of wine.
Soft drinks are also available. You may even see the table next to you mixing Cola with their wine! I have never tried it, but as my good friend Mr. John Mole will tell you, it may be a continuation of a habit that started in the ancient times.
A meal is often accompanied by a complimentary dessert, in the summer most of the time a plate of cool watermelon, in the winter a plate of homemade halvah.
Getting your check
Once your meal is complete, don’t be surprised if you’re suddenly ignored by your server. The check isn’t traditionally brought to the table until you’ve asked for it. You’ll want to make eye contact with your server (or the helper) and motion with the universal signature gesture.
That’s it. Don’t forget, order small, order lots, put it the middle and take your fork to it. This is democracy, brought to us by the Greeks. If you run out of something everyone liked, order more. Vote by fork!