Disclaimer: You might expect, reasonably, I should add, that a post centred mostly on food and drinks would contain some photography of said items. I will therefore let you down right at the beginning. While the blog’s industrious co-photographer is an enthusiastic eater, he is generally way too concerned with consuming what’s on his plate and has no patience for the fussiness of taking pictures that do the food justice. Why take engaging pictures when you can engage the food itself. I also find taking pictures of your food slightly suspect. Perhaps, if you spend so much time with the lighting and arrangement, and don’t mind the dish getting cold, you didn’t like it that much in the first place? This was a fairly long introduction to the fact that there are absolutely no food pictures in this post, just general material from Thessaloniki taken in between very satisfactory meals, so you will have to take our word for it and go try the stuff for yourself. Ok, there IS a cocktail, and yes, I did move it around the place to have good light, but since cocktails are generally cold in the first place, I found that the right kind of excuse for insta-foolish behaviour.
A great day should begin with a great breakfast, we uttered our battle cry as we descended to the ground floor of our apartment building, which continued the martial theme by harbouring a military equipment store. The shop assistant was busying himself with neatly arranging balaklavas and camouflage jackets, a good sign, we felt, that the city was awakening from its frozen slumber. Almost literally frozen, as the temperatures were way below what I find suited for Greece, and the grumpy faces of the few passers by we met seemed to echo my feelings. It was perhaps this Nordic vibe that led us to believe that food would be easily found on this, a sunny Sunday morning. How wrong we were. The south, even when frozen, remains the south. Mornings in general and Sunday mornings in particular are a time to be idle, to take things very slowly and carefully, lest we scare them into happening at a pace we are not yet ready to confront.
This must have been what the waiter in Ypsilon thought as we walked into the wonderfully designed and wonderfully empty spaces of the café. He then literally ran away, which we felt was a bit harsh, but it transpired he was merely looking for the mask he had not been wearing, since he hadn’t expected anyone to come so soon. (At the time of our trip, in March, there was a mask mandate in all closed spaces, and bars and restaurants, including their terraces, could only be visited with a COVID green pass). Yes, they were open, technically, the kitchen though, not yet. It would open, perhaps, at 10, but perhaps later, something was wrong with the cooking equipment. He pointed at a man who had the universally recognisable face of a plumber deep in thought about how to fix a seemingly unfixable conundrum. He was assisted by three equally pensive women, the cook and her aids, filling in for the chorus in the Greek tragedy of the broken oven.
We decided to stay, hopeful that the gods peering down from Mount Olympus would find the plumber’s quest to their liking. While we waited, we were brought coffee, and it was excellent. I generally tend to complain about coffee in Greece and Turkey (which is either of the local sort, or some Italian medium quality dark roast), primarily because I am a horrible hipster addicted to specialty brews, but Thessaloniki has been mercifully engulfed by third wave coffees. Besides Ypsilon, we also had great flat whites at The Blue Cup (which doubles as a cocktail bar in the evening) and espressos at Efimerida, which attracts the sort of twentysomething student crowd that looks set to start a revolution if only they were caffeinated enough and had managed to finish that Sartre in the French original which they are currently using to prop up their weary and hungover heads.
The gods had in the meantime favoured the plumber, and therefore us as well, and we were served our sunny side up eggs and omelette, which were delicious and worth the wait. We also discovered, through our waiter’s playlist choices, a strange Greek infatuation with Norwegian alt rockers Madrugada, which was a great improvement after a rather repetitive Beatles selection- perhaps the locals have a thing for the Beatles too, as not far from Ypsilon we discovered something called Let Eat Be, but decided the pun was too bad and did not love them do.
Yet the best, and by far the most affordable breakfast choice in Thessaloniki is the bougatsa. The name ultimately comes from the Latin panis focacius, the forerunner of today’s focaccia. While in Turkish, south Slavic languages and Hungarian poğaça/pogača/pogácsa refers to a small bread with no filling, the Greek bougatsa is a phyllo pastry with filling, frequently cheese or minced meat, more similar therefore to the Turkish börek and Slavic burek or banitsa. At Bougatsa Giannis, close to the White Tower, we spent less than ten euros on a serving for two, and the queue generally comes with a free language class as well, as bougatsas are laid out in the shop window without very clear written indications of what they contain, so the kind lady behind the counter would repeatedly answer the same questions as shoppers came and went. Since one person frequently buys half the shop and has long conversations with friends over the phone on what to bring them, we expected the queue to be excruciatingly slow, but bougatsa multitasking seems a finely tuned art, and we generally progressed efficiently enough.
In case you breathed a sigh of relief that I’m done with linguistic musings, it was premature. Another local staple is the soutzoukaki, which, as opposed to the Turkish sucuk is, however, not a sausage, but a sausage shaped meatball, more similar therefore to the Turkish köfte or the Serbian ćevap. We had an excellent serving of soutzoukakia at the Diavasi restaurant, who are justly famed for the quality of the food, but the interior is a little on the sterile, generic eatery side. For a more genuine taverna experience, head to O Thodoros, which came complete with excellent food, wine infused locals, a functioning fireplace and a friendly waiter sharing our pain at the unseasonably cold weather. The walls are covered with old pictures and knick knacks, the perfect atmosphere to get lost in meandering conversations about the ever intermingling nature of food and history.
At the end of a long walk on the seaside promenade we were greeted by the unmistakable scent of freshly grilled fish. This scent emanated from the Triaktis, which is a fine example of the slightly off the beaten track type of Greek restaurant. There is generalised chaos, the waiters seem in the throes of a severe existential crisis and forget half of your order, and, of the fish on the menu, there are perhaps two sorts which are available, yet the vibe is right and everyone seems to have a grand old time, especially once pleasantly dowsed in a few glasses of ouzo.
The Ladadika district was, similarly to others in the proximity of the port, home to Thessaloniki’s large Sephardic Jewish population, who had received shelter in the Ottoman Empire after being expelled from Spain in 1492. Today, after waves of immigration and the deportations of WWII, there are very few Jewish inhabitants left in Thessaloniki, and Ladadika has morphed into an effervescent nightlife district. As such, you are absolutely spoiled for choice when it comes to restaurants and bars, and we randomly ended up in Zithos, where the blog’s industrious co-photographer was defeated by a splendid plate of ribs and I had an excellent retsina. Should you feel inclined to consume some cocktails after your meal, you may head to Vogatsikou 3, helpfully located on Vogatsikou street number 3. During the day, a great location to have a Mastiha Mule is Skyline, the bar of the OTE Tower, which has a moving platform that provides you stunning views of the city, and your drink comes accompanied by complimentary snacks.
Last but not least, not strictly in the food and drinks, but perhaps in the food for thought and soul category, Thessaloniki has a small but well stocked foreign language bookshop, Mitakos Books, which also has a good selection of Greek literature in translation. Besides books, I also came away with a martaki- the red and white thread bracelet which is a relative of the Romanian mărțișor and the Bulgarian martenitsa, a spring welcoming tradition which connects the Balkans in a world of shared folk beliefs. While the mărțișor is primarily meant to bring luck and health, the martaki protects you from the scorching sun- on a sunny if frigid day in March, the promise of warm days to come was much needed comfort.