Every country has it own rules and considerations when it comes to food and Greece is no different. Generally, when you visit another country it is good to eat as the locals do, to know what to expect and to gain as close as you can an authentic eating experience.
1. Don’t expect your waiter to be your friend. By this I do not mean that Greek waiters are not friendly, many of them are, but you will not get the typical American greeting “Hi my name is so and so and I’ll be your server for tonight, can I get you some margaritas to start out?” No you will not have any of that. If they are really busy, they’ll probably bring out the basics (bread, forks, knives, menu etc.), and expect you to quickly give them your order when they come back to your table.
2. Know where you are going. In the large cities such as Athens and Thessaloniki, and many of the more popular islands, the range of restaurants is huge. From the simple tavern to the Michelin star restaurant. For high end, hotel and Michelin starred restaurants, the rules of eating out, are the same as in any other large city in Europe, but for the informal tavernas and restaurants you can be expected to eat more like a Greek (see below).
3. What to order. In the typical taverns you are not required to order a main course for each person. You can just order several appetizers. They are generally large enough so you don’t want to order too many. I find this type of ordering better because you get to taste several dishes rather than ordering just a main course and one appetizer. Generally a good balance is about 4-5 total for 2 people. So you could order a salad + 1 or 2 dips such as tzatziki or melitzanosalata (eggplant dip), a serving of fish or seafood (usually small fish that is fried or grilled or octopus) or a small meat dish such as meatballs and one more vegetable based appetizer. Along with the bread this is a filling meal. These type of appetizers are larger than tapas so they are filling. If you prefer a main course, it can be a plate of lathera (vegetables cooked in olive oil and tomato-my favorite), pasta or meat or fish. Vegetable dishes will be usually ordered at lunch. Larger fish is usually ordered to be shared among everybody at the table and you pay by the kilo. Meat is usually served with a side of rice, pasta, or potatoes, and therefore you do not need many appetizers, a Greek salad will suffice. For more in-depth information on what to order check this post.
4. Water is fine to drink in most large cities and islands. Most often than not, once you sit down you will be brought bottled water, you can tell the waiter that you would prefer tap water and they’ll bring regular water to your table instead of charging you 3-4 euros for a bottle. On the islands and some other coastal areas the water may not be so great, so there, bottled water is standard.
5. Go to eat at the right time. Sure there are taverns in the touristy places that will serve some sort of lunch at 12 noon, which is coffee time in Greece, but your best bet is to go for lunch between 1:30 and 3 pm. Dinner is also served much later: after 9 pm, later in the summer
6. Get used to kids. Yes, you will notice kids at the tavern at 11 pm and later especially in the summer. While you may think it is way too late for kids to be up at that hour, in Greece this is the norm. Since dinner is served late, unless parents have someone to babysit their children, they will bring them with to the tavern.
7. Vegetarian? No problem. I find it silly to look for specific vegetarian restaurants or dishes in Greece. The Greek cuisine and the Greek diet was essentially vegetarian. I hear people saying that they are sick of eating Greek salads because they say they cannot eat anything else since they are vegetarian. Well there are dozens of lathera dishes , yes those dishes that are basically vegetables cooked in olive oil in tomato. So I’m not really clear as to why they find it so difficult. Ask the waiter what “lathera” they have, many times you can go inside the restaurant and they have platters full of lathera vegetables. In the summer you may see briami, green beans, okra, eggplant, stuffed tomatoes and of course the various pites (spinach pie, cheese pie etc). With the exception of the psistaria (grill-meat taverns) almost any restaurant I’ve been too has a huge selection of vegetable dishes and appetizers.
8. Tipping is added to the bill, but it is appropriate to leave a small tip at the end of the meal this can be 2-5 euros, depending on the restaurant, you can leave more if you want, but it does not have to be the expected 15-20% you see in the U.S.
9. No, Greeks do not eat with their hands. I’ve seen many posts that say that it is OK to eat with your hands in Greece. Well not really. There are some things that may be eaten with your hands, finger food, which is the case in other countries as well. But generally everything served in a typical Greek restaurant or tavern can be consumed informally with a fork and knife. Sure you may grab a fried potato (french fry) or a small fried fish with your hands, sometimes you may dip your bread in the olive oil of a salad but usually you pierce the bread with your fork and dip, unless you are eating at home with your family. So…no it’s not OK to eat with your hands.
10. Non-smoking? Maybe. The smoking situation is not as it should be here in Greece. Supposedly smoking was not permited indoors. Shop owners felt that they would have a drop in customers and basically many of them decided not to follow the law. The law was not really enforced and as a result smoking inside is the norm. Sometimes you see non-smoking and smoking areas but they are not physically separated so really its useless. Another common “solution” (not really) is for the winter months restaurants and cafes basically put plastic awnings or panels and enclose the outer area which is the smokers area as it is technically outside. If you are a non-smoker and siting inside it is fine since it is separated from the main building, but many places have somehow made it one large space with the inside and outside connecting, thus no physical separation. Luckily in the summer you will be sitting outside, that is good as the smoke is not confined to a closed area.