Kafeneios and cafeterias are institutions in Athens. Business transactions are made, hearts are broken, stars are discovered, and countless cigarettes smoked. Surprisingly, not a lot of coffee is actually sold — you should be averaging one sip every ten minutes. If you get a free refill, take a picture and send it to me.
Here are some of the unwritten rules (until now) to help you through the social ceremony of drinking coffee in Athens.
Along with the usual espresso options, Athens has some purely Greek creations:
Frappe (Nescafe, ice, and optionally milk) served in a tall glass with a straw. As the Greeks say, siga-siga. Drink it slowly! On top of getting a brain freeze, you’ll be jittering from the excess of caffeine in this number.
Hellenico or “Greek” coffee is served in a demitasse cup. Give it a minute to settle before taking a sip unless you want a mouthful of grounds.
You’ll be asked about sugar; you’re expected to reply “plain, medium, or sweet.”
Plain means without, medium means about a teaspoon (plus a little) and sweet means two teaspoons or a long turn of the sugar shaker. In other words, very sweet.
For drip coffee, ask for “Filter” or “Galliko” cafe. Galliko means “French” as in the “French press.”
THE SOCIAL RULES
Hate to sound like I’m repeating myself but the word of the coffee drinker in Greece is S-L-O-W. If you’ve been invited for coffee with a Greek you could be in for a good hour or more of circuitous conversation. To “invite” is to offer, so if you’ve been invited you will likely not be expected to pay. You can play the “grab the ticket” game but splitting is not customary if you’ve just been acquainted. Don’t be stubborn if the other insists on treating- it could be considered rude.
Coffee places fill up in Athens twice a day: once around eleven in the morning, especially on the weekends, and again at seven at night before the evening meal. It’s a social time so it will be buzzing with energy and could be difficult to grab a table in the more popular places.
KAFENEIO VS CAFETERIA
Ever seen those movies where the stranger walks into a bar and everyone in the room stops mid-conversation to stare? Kafeneios are usually male-only hangouts where the older generation goes to sit on traditional, rush chairs, drink their Greek coffees, talk politics and play tavli.
The cafeteria, on the other hand, prides itself on lush seating, attractive waitresses and thumping soundtracks. You pay more for the coffee- average 3€ to 4€- because you’ll be occupying this beautiful space. Good places to try are the cafes in Thissio on the wide, pedestrian only Aeropagitou Street, or Kolonaki Square where you might rub shoulders with Greek celebrities and politicians. Bibliothiki and Da Cappo are two of the most famous.
If you’re frugal, my favorite places for coffee around 2€ are Makrigianni 3 and Tramezzini, both near the New Acropolis Museum; the museum itself prides itself on its low prices and high quality of coffee and food in its cafe. The view of the Acropolis from the mezzanine is inspiring.