Restaurants naturally play a paramount role in disseminating the food culture of a place. In Crete food is so deeply connected with all aspects of life that dining at the right place, apart from being a great culinary pleasure, provides a great deal of information regarding Cretan culture. Cretans are very proud of their own cuisine (not unjustifiably!) and you can sample Cretan cuisine (or at least elements of it) at almost every restaurant in Crete.
The present section serves as an introduction to Cretan eateries and is a guide of what to expect when visiting restaurants in Crete. It is noted that the eatery classification and the various points presented below also apply to a large extent to eateries in the rest of Greece.
Thousands of pages have been written about the famous Cretan hospitality that can be traced back to antiquity. It is true that a lot of Cretans have the charisma of making guests of any sort to feel at ease. This is naturally reflected in restaurants, where most of the times customers receive a very friendly and welcoming attitude. This way a meal is transformed into a deeper experience where one can stop feeling a guest and becomes part of the environment. There is no time pressure, you can order whenever and can enjoy your meal as long as you like. And almost always a “kerasma”, i.e., a treat, comes at the end in the form of dessert and raki.
Serving culture and slow eating
In Crete people love to eat different dishes at the same time. The concept of a starter and a main, although existing, it is not so rigid. Starter dishes are served in the beginning but you are not expected to have finished them when mains arrive. The waiters are not going to clear your starter dishes when they bring your mains as it is expected that you keep enjoying all of them at the same time. It is also very important to know that Crete has a slow eating culture with well recognized health benefits! This means that you are not expected to finish your meal fast; waiters will not rush to clear your dishes by the time they seem empty. Please do not misinterpret this as bad service, it is quite the contrary; waiters give you ample time to finish your meal and any leftovers at your own pace (a great escape attitude to adopt when on vacation!). If you would like your table cleared you can signal this to the waiters. Note that usually service tends to be fast, friendly and attentive and you have no issue at all communicating with the waiters in English (sometimes in other languages such as German or French).
Culture of eating out
On the island of Crete going to a restaurant is a casual activity for locals. Almost on a weekly basis (sometimes even more regularly!) Cretans go with their friends or families to restaurants to socialize and sustain the strong family bonds and interpersonal relationships existing on the island. Restaurants in Crete are usually very friendly and accommodating places, where apart from being able to enjoy a delightful meal, people feel welcome and can spend hours slow eating, chatting and enjoying life! Therefore, restaurants form an important part of Cretan culture which visitors can sample to a great extent. Note, of course, that Cretans are usually great cooks (men and women alike), meaning that they enjoy delightful meals also at home.
Enjoying a meal out with good company is a casual activity for Cretans
Eatery types / food served
In Crete and Greece there is no rigid classification of eateries. For example very often eateries classed as “tavernas” and restaurants (“estiatoria“) offer similar range of dishes and services. As a rule of thumb the eatery classification presented below can be used as a guide to Cretan and Greek eateries, as this classification applies also to restaurants in the rest of Greece. However, it does not apply to restaurants serving Greek cuisine outside Greece. There are 5 main eatery types summarized as:
- Tavernas (“tavernes”)
- Fish tavernas (“psarotavernes”)
- Restaurants (“estiatoria”)
- Casual eateries (“inomagiria”)
- Meze/raki restaurants (“mezedopolia”, “rakadika” or “ouzeri”)
- Souvlaki/gyro eateries (“ovelistiria”, “psistaries” or “souvlatzidika”)
Tavernas are usually more casual restaurants, without always being the case, that always feature char grill. A taverna can also serve pan cooked, stewed or oven cooked dishes, what in Greek is called “magireuta”. Quite often the highlight of a taverna are dishes coming straight from the barbecue, such as lamb and pork chops, veal steaks and hamburgers; what we would call “Cretan barbecue“. Crete has sheep herds grazing on higher altitudes and near the sea, resulting in paramount meat quality (pork is also exceptional for similar reasons), so enjoying such barbecue is a must. Note that some tavernas could be upscale offering more creative and gourmet tastes.
Typical interiors of upscale Cretan tavernas.
Fish tavernas (“psarotavernes”) naturally specialize in fish and seafood. They always have chargrill and can offer grilled fish; something that should be tried in Crete as fresh Cretan fish is of great quality. Grilling fish on charcoal requires great skill, so not everybody can do this. In these eateries you can try other great seafood dishes such as fried fish or squid, octopus specialities, seafood pasta etc. Note that in Crete it is not so popular to accompany seafood with Ouzo, as in the rest of Greece and other Greek islands (of course such option is available). Cretans tend to accompany their fish with white wine or retsina. Very often you can also find meat dishes (usually from the barbecue) in “psarotavernes” to cater for people that do not like fish; it is usually not their best option!
Typical specialities of a Cretan fish taverna; (from left to right) pan fried fish, seafood pasta and pan fried squid.
Nowadays an “estiatorio” usually is a more upscale eatery serving intricate and creative dishes. These places tend to have good ambience and service and offer not merely good food but an above average dining experience. Crete has a very dynamic and surprisingly rich restaurant scene, where foodies can enjoy not only the endless traditional Cretan dishes but also modern and creative cuisine. An estiatorio most of the times does not have char grill as tavernas and fish tavernas do. Note that an estiatorio can offer all sort of dishes and cuisines and is not limited to specific food types and styles as for example tavernas and fish tavernas often are.
An estiatorio usually offers an elegant ambience and more attentive service. This goes together with more creative cuisine and high quality wine.
Casual Eateries (Inomagiria)
Casual eateries or “inomagiria” are informal and unassuming places serving mainly stews, casseroles and oven cooked dishes of all sorts, known as”magireuta“. Do not expect to have a fine dining experience at such eatery, although their cooking is often exceptional. In the past they were serving the guests of a city and professionals and were operating until early afternoon. Nowadays this kind of eateries has greatly evolved and most of them are also open for dinner. Some eateries of this sort attract trendy crowds of all ages as they offer a kind of retro experience and genuine tastes. Therefore, do not hesitate to give inomagiria a try; they are frequented by locals and their food is most of the time very good at great prices.
Inomagiria are unassuming eateries mainly frequented by locals offering authentic tastes at great prices
Mezedopolia / Rakadika
Meze or raki restaurants, also known as “mezedopolia” or “rakadika” tend to be casual and unassuming places that serve smaller dishes of various types and flavors. The international equivalent of such places could be tapas restaurants (after the Spanish tapas). Most of the times, such smaller dishes are delicious and you can try several of them at the same time, resulting in great culinary pleasures. Note that this does not apply to all such eateries, which occasionally offer hefty portions. It should be noted that occasionally meze restaurants are upscale, trendy and more expensive than average.
Mezedopolia are sometimes called “rakadika” as they serve great raki (kind of Cretan schnapps made out of grapes similar to the Italian grappa) to accompany the served meze dishes. Truth to be said raki is great accompaniment to such delicacies and also to good company! In the rest of Greece, restaurants branded as “ouzeri” would fall under this category, the difference being that they serve ouzo, the famous Greek spirit made of aniseed, instead of raki which is not so popular in Crete (although widely available).
A quaint Cretan “inomagirio”, falling in the general category of mezedopolia/rakadika, offering a relaxed atmosphere and an old-fashioned charm
Last but not least we come to the most casual of eateries, the “souvlaki” or “gyro” eateries which are also the cheapest. These serve char grilled meat skewers (“souvlaki”) made of pork or chicken. They also served “gyros”, being chunks of pork meat roasting on spinning spit. Both “souvlaki” and “gyros” could be served wrapped in pita bread with yoghurt (not tzatziki as in the rest of Greece!), tomatoes, fries and onions or plain with some similar accompaniments. In such places you can sit at a normal table and enjoy your meal or you can just take it away. Note that many of these eateries offer great moments of taste as pork meat tends to be of exceptional quality in Crete.
What to expect / treats at no charge
At Cretan restaurants bread, which is a fundamental part of every meal in Greece, is always included (and charged a small amount) and is replenished upon request (usually free of charge). Bread quality sometimes can be surprisingly good and some eateries offer a range of bread types which sometimes is home made. Often the meal starts with a treat (at no extra charge), such us some nibbles, dips and/or some raki.
Bread (often of various types) with dips is a very common starter treat in Crete
In most restaurants of western and central Crete you do not need (and most of the times you cannot!) order dessert; it is on the house and comes automatically when you order the bill or signal to the waiter that you have finished. This should not be taken for granted at the far east of Crete though. Dessert can be a baked sweet or seasonal fruit (or sometimes both!). Fruits in Crete abound and are of fantastic quality. Restaurants often serve as dessert watermelon, melon, grapes, peaces (summer season) or apples, oranges and pears (winter season). Typical examples of baked desserts are “kormos” (made of biscuits, butter and chocolate), “sokolatopita” (chocolate pie made of chocolate, eggs and flour), ‘‘portokalopita” (orange pie made of orange, eggs and flour), “saragli” (a type of baklava), “mizithropites” (sweet ricotta pies topped with honey).
Dessert is one of the best surprises in a Cretan restaurant. This is a range of what you can get!
Healthy options / vegetarianism
Most Cretan restaurants offer healthy options to eat. Cretan cuisine is one of the richest in the world when it comes to whole food plant-based options; Cretan diet is to a large extent vegan relying on local fresh produce. The staples, i.e., the basic elements, of the authentic Cretan diet are the following six: (1) olive oil, (2) tomatoes, (3) bitter greens, (4) other vegetables, (5) legumes and (6) fruits (when it comes to desserts and snacks).
Naturally, there is a great variety of dishes based on the above mentioned vegan elements of Cretan cuisine that are casually found in eateries across the island. Such vegetarian dishes often fall under the category of “magireuta”, i.e., oven baked or stewed dishes, based on fresh vegetables, legumes as well as wild greens (“chorta“) and edible bulbs (“volvi“). These are most of the times cooked in olive oil and tomato juice! Note also that all Cretan restaurants offer rich and tasteful salads, varying from the typical Greek salad to more intricate salads containing all sorts of greens and seeds. Last but not least, Cretan cuisine contains great pies that are to large extent vegan, as they are often filled with greens. Therefore, Crete is a great place for vegetarians of all levels! Note of course that all Cretan restaurants also offer meat-based dishes, so the choice of what to eat is purely yours.
A small sample of the healthy dishes (also vegan) that one can have at a Cretan restaurant
What to drink / House wine
At Cretan restaurants you have a lot of drink options both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. The main alcoholic drinks on offer are wine, retsina and beer. Regarding non-alcoholic drinks, all the normal soft drinks are on offer including some local ones produced by Cretan fruit.
The most common option is the house wine which is served in carafes of three different volumes, 0.25 L, 0.5 L and 1 L. There is always red and white house wine and sometimes rose. It is usually inexpensive and tends to be of fairly good quality as many people opt for it. Usually house wine can be trusted and has the advantage that allows you to taste the very local style of wine without spending a lot of money while drinking at will. As the quality of house wine is important for a Cretan (but also for a Greek) restaurant, cretanhealthylife.net assesses it in its reviews.
Note that as summer temperatures can be quite high, white wine, rose wine and retsina are always chilled and therefore pleasant. Some restaurants slightly chill also red wine (which I find great!) as the room temperature in summer is far above the recommended mark of 17 °C (or 63 °F).
Attitude to children
Cretan restaurants almost always are extremely children friendly, reflecting the islands’ culture towards children. It would be unthinkable in Crete not to welcome a child in a restaurant or a public place. Most restaurants have children facilities such special chairs while some of them even feature outdoor playgrounds (mainly those located further from city centers).
When (not) to go
It is useful to know what are the usual serving times and when it is peak time for a restaurant in Crete. Restaurants in Crete tend to serve almost all day (and night!) long from lunchtime onwards in summer months, when the island receives most of its visitors. In winter months some restaurants keep the same schedule whereas some others are open only at weekends. Locals usually go for lunch between 13:00 and 15:00, whereas dinner time is between 20:00 and 22:00. This does not mean that restaurants do not serve outside these hours but rather that during this time a restaurant receives more crowd. Usually the kitchen closes around 24:00.
In principle it is very usual for Cretans to go to restaurants on Saturday evenings and Sunday lunchtime. On Saturday evenings companies of all sorts gather to enjoy their dinner while on Sunday mostly families meet up for their weekly social event, which of course has to do with food! During such times it might become difficult to find an available table and service can get slower. Also quality might deteriorate to some extent due to the pressure the restaurant staff receives. Therefore, making a reservation is recommended at such times, also depending on the restaurant. Note also that the month of August restaurants are crowded almost at any time mainly due to the number of visitors to the island and also due to fact that most locals take their holidays at that time.
Leaving a tip is not mandatory, as service is always included by law. If you are very happy with the service it is a good gesture to leave a small tip. Usually leaving 1 or 2 Euros is a good tip for a family dinner. You can either give it to the waiter when you pay the bill or even leave it on the table before leaving the restaurant (most Cretans do this).
Article last edited: 27/04/2019
© Article and photos by Agisilaos Papadogiannis