ATHENS — "Breaking plates and glasses and dancing is strictly for the tourists," emphasized American expatriate Catherine Vanderpool as we sat in the warm night air beside the ancient harbor of Microlimano at Athens' port of Piraeus.
We had come to the Black Goat, a favorite with Athenians who come to eat merida and kalamarakia tiganita washed down with white wines and mineral water.
The stereotypes associated with Greek dining in the United States fall quickly in the face of the real thing. True, moussaka is usually available, and stuffed vine leaves are served in various forms. But ouzo and retsina are out, in favor of Scotch and local wines, and the variety of food, especially seafood, makes dining in Greece an adventure.
Merida , for instance, are small fish like whitebait, about two inches long, that are deep-fried and eaten whole. Kalamarakia are tiny fried squid served with slices of fresh lime. They are two of the most popular appetizers in the waterfront tavernas.
Dinner in Athens is a late evening custom shared by other Mediterranean cultures and seldom begins before 9:30. At the Black Goat the crowd, dressed in casual clothes, did not begin arriving till after 10 p.m. about the time that buses filled with tour groups were leaving the large tavernas down the road and heading back to the hotels.
We were left in the quiet with sounds of laughter and the strains of a guitar from another table to contemplate the autumn moon rising above the bay. Women were selling fresh gardenias, and after ordering a first course of merida from the waiter, we went across the road and into the kitchen to choose the rest of our dinner.
"Greek waiters don't like to stand at the table and recite the menu the way they do in New York," said Catherine, who has lived in Athens for 13 years. "They get bored and will invite you to get up and come into the kitchen."
So with Catherine's help we selected items for dinner from the variety of fresh fish displayed by the chef. We chose shrimp saganaki , sauteed with tomatoes and fresh feta cheese; tsipoura , baked sea bass stuffed with squid; taramosalata , a fresh briny fish roe mixed with potatoes and lemon, and another baked fish, this time with the skin rubbed with oil and cloves of garlic.
A Simple Dessert
We had slices of perfectly ripe melon for dessert. The whole evening cost about $8 per person including a tip to the waiter of 10% above the service charge (a custom).
During our stay in Athens we discovered a variety of restaurants and tavernas that, without fail, welcomed our efforts to communicate a few words of Greek, and without much difficulty we mastered the technique of eating out in Greece.
Myrtia is considered by residents to be the most consistently good restaurant in Athens. It's in an exclusive area of the city about 10 minutes from the Hilton International. Tables covered in blue-and-white cloths are set beneath grape arbors in the open-air courtyard, and musicians play in the moonlight.
The best choice is the prix fixe dinner with almost endless courses. The appetizers, or mezedes , included fried mussels; huge prawns in a tomato sauce; tyropitakia , cheese wrapped in filo dough; keftedes , or meatballs, and stuffed peppers.
A delicate moussaka preceded the main course of charcoal grilled lamb and pork, or souvlaki , served with potatoes and a traditional Greek salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, feta cheese and olives. Cruets of oil and vinegar were served on the side for personal mixing. Many Greeks add only a little vinegar.
Dessert consisted of sweet black grapes and ripe melon slices, including a "yellow melon," which has a bright yellow skin. Dinner at Myrtia cost around $9.
A Big Lunch
Greeks traditionally skip breakfast to have a sesame roll and coffee about 10 in the morning. Lunch is a big affair, and many head for tavernas.
Across from the entrance to the Agora on the edges of the Plaka, or old section of Athens, we met Stephen Miller, director of the American School for Classical Studies, at a little taverna called the Epirus restaurant.
"All the archeologists eat here," he told us. "We think it sits on the spot of the Painted Stoa where Socrates taught. Eventually we will tear it down to dig underneath."
We began with a cold salad of mountain greens cooked in olive oil, followed by a light moussaka made with potatoes, rice with meatballs and garlic, cold zucchini with olive oil dressing, and meschari me kritharakia , roast veal in tomato sauce with a rice-shaped pasta. The total came to about $3 per peron.
Sidewalk cafes are popular among residents for mid-morning and afternoon coffee and snacks. Greek coffee is quite strong, but can be ordered with varying degrees of sugar and even with milk and ice.