My recent food excursion to Heraklion’s Legacy Gastro Suites left me hungry for more. So hungry, in fact, that I knew it was my mission to sample as many Cretan delicacies as I could on my next trip.
Those following my wanderings in Crete will know I was invited to the grand re-opening of Papi Osteria Caffeteria – an unbeatable experience in traditional fine dining. But the trip left me wanting to stretch my legs, get out there, and enjoy whatever else the city had to offer.
A quick Google search will tell you the best places to try the local fare are tavernas. Small, homely, communal, and local. Serving traditional fare and a buzzing atmosphere, the taverna is Greece’s answer to the pub, if the question is, ‘how do we make a pub, but better?’ A search will also tell you to expect music and dancing.
Along with the taverna, you’ll also find the kafeneio – further out of the cities, found in small towns and villages. This takes locals to a whole new level: a space where friends will show up to share drinks, and have a good time. Kafeneios don’t have a standard menu – they serve what they have. Like showing up unexpected at a relative’s house in the countryside and being met with a three-course imagined from the contents of the cupboards. Often, the taverna and the kafeneio will blend seamlessly – you’ll find local restaurants that have a menu but a more easy-going..Boheme attitude. But, regardless, you’re in for an unmatched and unpredictable time.
On my latest trip, I found five top-class tavernas and kafeneios for you to set eyes on and broaden your Cretan horizons. Prepare yourself for culinary exploration and a night of dancing, drinking, and wondering why you’ve missed out on this for so long.
Three Pines and Three Pints
My first tavern excursion came recommended. I wanted to know where the locals in Heraklion went on their downtime – where they dined, drank, and danced. Legacy Gastro Suites’ omniscient concierge seemed perfect to ask – and in return, I was direct to this fine tavern. Ta Tria Pefka, a.k.a. The Three Pines.
One of my favourite things about Heraklion (which is quickly becoming one of my favourite cities) is that everything is within walking distance. No need for taxis, cars, buses, or bikes. You want to take in this beautiful city and not miss a minute. It only takes fifteen of those minutes to walk to The Three Pines from Heraklion’s popular central shopping hub. Arriving there, you pass under one of those swinging overhead signs straight out of a classic Western. You’ll hear local Cretan music and the animated chatter of happy customers. But these diners don’t just feel like customers – they feel like old friends, old flames, and family. To each other, they are, but soon I felt like I’d known these colourful characters, local heroes, and dinnertime revellers for a mythic amount of time.
Sat together at long tables stretching out of the dining room and onto the terrace, I joined the local crowd. The more, the merrier, in this warm abode. And the warmest of welcomes was from Kostas, the owner – ensuring I was caught up in the action by seating me alongside the locals and ensuring they take good care of me. Between them and the selection of beers on the menu, I was in good company.
Presented with a menu, I quickly associated myself with the local fare. A fine showcase of veggie dishes, such as Sfouggato (local omelette with eggs, french fries, and feta cheese), Zucchini stuffed flowers and stuffed vine leaves (stuffed with rice and fresh herbs), Fried snails (typical Cretan food), fresh salads, fried local mushrooms, perfectly complementing a bevy of meats from the grill, or the frying pan (such as the gorgeous veal liver with oregano). I started with an eggplant salad, rusk with feta cheese and tzatziki, and ended with the unique veal liver and a veal tender steak.
I’m impressed with myself for ordering dessert – firstly, for having room, and secondly, for still being able to focus on the menu. A round of cream cheese pies with sugar and cinnamon on top and grape must pudding with roasted sesame seeds and coffee powder – a perfect combination of sweetness and bitterness – was just what I needed to pep me up for the pleasant amble back to the hotel.
Artistry in Astritsi
My next stop took me to a kafeneio (to check out the difference between a kafeneio and a tavern) out of Heraklion, to the postcard village of Astritsi, just half an hour out of the city by taxi. I had revealed my gastronomic plan to my fellow diners sometime around pint three at The Three Pines and this is the direction they eagerly pointed me in.
Soon, I was out in the countryside in a picturesque land of possibility. Where would I eat? Where would I drink? These questions were quickly answered by Kato Vrisi, my first kafeneio and a departure from the communal chaotic good in Heraklion. Here was tranquillity. An untouched, elven woodland. With ducks, in a duck pond. Nestled under the trees like a Neverland campsite, the café was quite the magical site. A paved terrace, woodland, flowing water in the background, wood fires, a little white church nearby, and that sort of mystical ambience seldom found in a dining experience. This was something special – dining as a fantastical art form – and something you shouldn’t miss.
Popular with the whole family – the place is ideal for taking your kids due in thanks to its fairytale feel, small ‘meze’ plates, friendly foods like homemade Cretan fries (similar to French fries, but Cretan), traditional ntolmadakia, gruyere & anthotiro cheese, little cheese pies (sarikopitakia) and little herbs pies (hortopitakia), and fava dip. My lunch consisted of a welcome portion of gemista – tomatoes stuffed with minced beef and risotto rice, perfectly cooked over the wood fire – along with some lamb ‘fricassee‘, and ‘gida kokkinisti‘ – goat in fresh tomato sauce.
I don’t want to say too much about this one – it’s splendour and majesty in the forest made for an unforgettable, otherworldly experience. Not only traditional in its fare and flavours, Kato Vrisi introduced me to the Crete’s nature, and its storybook atmosphere is just something you’re going to have to immerse yourself in. Make a day of it and stay for Astrisi’s Fairy Caves – a labyrinth of tunnels, gorges, and springs doused in the same magnetic folklore that seasons Kato Vrisi.
The following evening’s cultural collation was only a ten-minute walk from the hotel and across the road from the famous open-air Manos Hadjidakis Garden Theater. I was heading there for a night-time performance of Mikrasiatissa when I discovered Erganos tavern. Dining there served as a matinee and an overture for the performance I was to experience later that night. Immediately, there was music. There was dancing. There were pints. When I eventually had to call for the cheque and cross the road for the start of the show, it was a disappointment that Erganos wouldn’t be joining me. The show was excellent, but the rehearsal beforehand in this thrumming bar set the night up perfectly.
Erganos immediately tells you what it means hospitality… and it is traditional homely Cretan goodness. It’s designed to look like a house in your typical Cretan village – rustic and warm, cosy – like stepping into a childhood memory at your grandparents’. The place has an immediate soundtrack of lyra, bouzouki, mandolin, and acoustic guitar. It feels cinematic, like you’re living in a travel film and just stepped into the scene that inspires the protagonist to change their outlook on life. But the music’s diegetic – it’s not just permeating out the walls or from the speakers – it’s happening in real time, with real musicians, just sitting in the corner! I quickly discovered that this was an everyday occurrence, and these musicians weren’t hired to provide entertainment. They were just locals, coming down to their local taverna, picking up an instrument, making music and mantinades (lyrics), and enjoying being there. It was eye-opening, to say the least.
Wandering into a bar, taking an instrument off the wall, and just… playing. I knew that I was going to have to join in. I didn’t have long to wait to take part in this unmissable opportunity. ‘Don’t be shy!’ I was instructed, trying my best to hide that I’d been spying on the acoustic number he’d claimed from the wall the entire time I’d been ordering.
A Fair Amount of Local Fare
Speaking of ordering, the menu is huge. Something like seventy menu choices, not including dessert. Picky eaters – you have no excuse. They’ve helpfully split the menu up into small plates and starters you can snack on between songs, and bigger grill plates you can sit back and graze on. I’m, unfortunately, not adventurous enough to try gardoumakia – lamb intestines (I’m sure they’re lovely, but even as a Scot, I shy away from haggis on most nights). Nor were any of the goat-related dishes taking my fancy. But the courgette croquettes, minced meat sfakianopita pies, and skioufichta with anthothyros cheese would serve me well between musical numbers. The latter of those dishes was a type of Cretan pasta boiled in ram stock, topped with a very fine goat’s cheese, and absolutely delicious. The perfect accompaniment to the cheesy nonsense I was trying to remember the words to and bash out the chords for on guitar. The locals didn’t seem to notice; they appeared to like Abba very much, and I only remembered that Mamma Mia is set on a Greek island during the second verse.
After a pint or two more from the extensive local wine menu, the staff were very happy to join in too. I can see why these places are always busy – it’s just a good night origami-folded into a small building and packed with great people. And it’s simple. Stellar food, flowing wine, the best hospitality, and an acoustic atmosphere. It’s been this way in Crete for as long as anyone can remember – probably since Knossos still had a ceiling – and it’s not for changing. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.
I bid the increasingly bubbly minstrels and swaying staff a good night and crossed the road for more music, checking first if Erganos would still be open for another round when the show finished. It was. To be fair, it didn’t seem the kind of place to end a party at any sensible hour, and that suited me just fine.
A Barbecue Good Enough for the Australians
Twenty minutes in the opposite direction from my hotel would be the next stop on my local dining trip. In slight recovery from the previous night’s hospitality, Xylouris Taverna was the perfect place to unwind and take it all in. More spacious than Erganos, but still anointed with that traditional charm, homemade food, and hospitality, Xylouris showed me a more laidback, fine-dining approach to the Cretan night out.
Located on the coast of Heraklion, Xylouris offered me a cool breeze and a beautiful sunset whilst I dined outside under ivy-draped pergolas and lantern light. Me, myself, and I enjoyed the more romantic vibe – the tranquillity, the view, the wind, and the wine list. My date for the evening would be a bottle of Domenico made from local thrapsathiri grapes, and together we chilled. You want to try the antikristo here, where they fire up a hunk of lamb and potatoes at your table, a process that really brings out that smoky, barbecue taste. A table of Australians nearby were loudly singing its praises, so if the barbecue’s good enough for the Aussies, you know you’re onto a winner.
A medieval banquet’s portion of roasted chicken arrived – more than enough for Domenico and I – but the Australians were managing to flame some lamb and pork too. If you don’t have all night to work through such a feast, or if you prefer smaller bites, Xylouris also has a wide appetiser menu. This features both warm and cold snacks, including tirokafteri dips, dolmades (stuffed vine leaves), oven-baked feta and grilled halloumi cheeses, and various salad options.
All that was left after dinner was a digestive walk along the coastline to the historic Venetian Port. The Australians didn’t seem in any rush to finish, but Domenico was drained and I thought it best to call it a night.
Dining in the Court of Merastri
Fairly close to Erganos, Merastri would be the final establishment to serve me up some Cretan culture. Behind an inconspicuous door on a quiet suburban street on the outskirts of the city centre, you’ll find treasure. Beyond the unassuming facade is a fancy dining room complete with chandeliers, an impressive floor-to-ceiling fireplace, and communal dining tables. If the food at Xylouris was fit for a banquet, Merastri is the banquet hall. A secluded outdoor terrace with snaking vines and creeping trees supplements the unexpected dining room, but tonight, I wanted to be inside – beside that fireplace, marinating in that atmosphere. There was a buzz in the air like the patrons were waiting for fanfare to announce the arrival of some obscure royalty.
We were the royalty as far as the attentive staff were concerned, but the real fanfare was the food. Cooked over a wood oven, slathered in Cretan olive oil, and served with local bread (top marks already), this taverna-cum-palace granted another distinct take on traditional Cretan eating.
I joined a large group of local diners, chatting, dining on this and that, passing bottles along, and adding to the ambience of the abode. Although, not all of them, it turned out, were locals
– they’d just been taken under the locals’ wings and were acting the part. You honestly couldn’t tell. No fussy eaters here, no strange substitutions, and no requests for a menu less Greek. This was a royal court of happy diners. Soon, I was inducted into their ranks, enjoying jokes I didn’t always get, conversations that meandered as fast as wine glasses could be filled, and stuffed zucchini flowers that seemed to appear, be passed along the table and never be seen again.
Speak Easy, and to Everyone
I managed to procure a handmade pasta in zucchini broth, some sweetbreads, and twenty per cent of a cheeseboard that I traded to the German bloke across from me for some apáki pork. My Greek is dreadful, so everyone just kept offering me raki in the hopes that it would get better. At forty per cent alcohol volume, the raki made my pronunciation so slurred it wouldn’t matter if I was fluent or not.
By dessert, the royal court of locals and appropriate travellers were refusing anything but the wine list. This gave me the opportunity to bungle my way through ordering a galaktoboureko (try saying that after people keep topping up your raki) and a much-needed filo pastry with semolina custard showed up. This was quickly enjoyed before someone else peeled away from the wines and wanted an equal share of it.
Back outside, you’re into the quiet. It’s quite a juxtaposition. You wouldn’t think that a plain wooden door secreted away in the suburbs could conceal such festivity. If there’s anything close to resembling a prohibition speakeasy in Heraklion, it’s Merastri.
Speaking easy was something of a difficulty for my new companions, who spilt out after me and murmured something in a mix of languages about finding another taverna to haunt. I bid the directions to Erganos, then a farewell, and I skittered back to bed. The week was at its end, but the promise of more good food on my next trip was enough to drift me into a secure sleep.
Pub Grub with a Difference
It was fortuitous that I found an appealing mix of tavernas and kafeneios, both in culinary style and atmosphere – especially when each felt so distinct and interesting. The Three Pines for its warm hospitality. Kato Vrisi’s magic. Erganos’ atmosphere. Xylouris’ fine dining. And Merastri for that wonderful feeling of absolutely everything going on around you.
Transcendentalists climb Tibetan mountains to get a sense of everything – a cosmic connection to everyone around them. They should just have an evening in a taverna, invent creative ways to dodge more raki and fail and take part in a conversation that no one has any grip on whatsoever.
I’ve gathered that fried mini pies, olives, gruyere, snails, and lamb dishes are Crete’s equivalent to pub grub and that the locals love it in the same way that my people gorge on chips, mushy peas, and binge drinking. I’ve been all over the world, but the vibe is different here in Crete – people are more involved whilst eating out. Someone’s always dancing to something, even if there’s nothing to dance to. Something appetising is always making an appearance too. Like so much of Cretan culture, the taverna just feels right. It feels comfortable and inclusive, and completely crackers… but I’ve not experienced a place like it.
So, next time you find yourself in Crete, consider straying away from the populous eateries with the burgers and pizzas. Cross the road away from the restaurants punting the fare you can have back home. Go through the mysterious wooden door, point wildly at a menu of colourful local dishes, pick up an instrument, and find yourself in the middle of a conversation that has no start, beginning, or end. You’ll be talking about it for quite some time.