Cretan cuisine is well known to culinary experts as one of the best the Mediterranean has to offer. It is tasty and healthy at the same time, as it uses local fresh ingredients. But is it possible to experience the real thing as a tourist, while visiting the island just for a few days? I believe you can if you know what to look for and where to go. In this short list, I will point out my personal favorite restaurants and taverns.
Unique Cretan dishes to try
If you want to really experience the traditional cuisine (and I most certainly hope you do, as it is delicious!), you first have to know the available dishes. Cretans eat what their environment provides: lots of vegetables and plants and meat (most notably goat). The local specialties are:
Dolmades or Dolmadakia
You can find these all over Greece and perhaps Turkey, too, but in Crete they make them with local wine leaves and without meat. They usually combine them with yogurt or some kind of spread cheese, like “Ksigalo”.
It’s just meat in the oven with as little other ingredients as possible: just salt and olive oil. Its name literally means “plain” in the local dialect.
A potato is baked inside the coals. It is served with your choice of salt, olive oil, perhaps butter or lemon.
Large parts of meat are grilled against the fire (not on top of it). It is usually goat or lamb.
A rusk is topped up with graded tomato and feta cheese. Simple yet a classic.
A thin omelete with zucchini.
Snails are eaten in Crete, in various ways. You may notice that a lot of forks in traditional restaurants are bended. This is because there is a special way to use your fork to get the eatable part out of the shell, that usually bends the fork!
Although my personal favourites are Kefalotiri, Anthotiros and Xigalo, Graviera is the most famous Cretan cheese. The cheese making tradition is strong in Crete and most areas have their own unique cheese!
This is the generic name for any eatable plant. The plate is seasonal and every season is a different plant. Add some lemon and olive oil to get the most out of it.
Similar to eastern’s pilaf, but with a lot of lamp fat. It is usually served in weddings, so you may find it as “Gamopilafo” (it translates as the wedding’s pilaf).
Local twisted pasta, usually served with Anthotiros, as a soup.
Also keep in mind that most of the dishes in Crete are meant to be shared!
Where to eat the best local cuisine in Heraklion
There are a lot of traditional taverns that offer a great selection of dishes to enjoy for lunch or dinner. Here is a list of the places I usually eat:
- Kagiampis. Probably the best homemade food in Heraklion. The owner is full of character and is always willing to chat about history or theatre.
- Vardis tavern, with its’ tables out on the street and great selection of fresh fish and excellent meat.
- Erganos. Even the waiters here speak with a heavy local accent, it’s that original. All the choices here respect the tradition, and the stone decoration adds to the experience.
- I rouga tou Baoula. A little outside the city center, offers very well implemented traditional cuisine. You can get a table in the covered garden, that has trees coming out of the roof!
- Koumos. Located outside the Kavrochori village, a few kilometers away from the city, is housed in an old stone building, that used to be a house. The whole experience is as traditional as it gets, with exceptional local dishes. The inside of the building could be a museum.
- Onisimos. This multy-awarded family restaurant is in the Peza village to the south of Heraklion. It offers the best “Gamopilafo” you can get outside a wedding.
Heraklion is also known for its street food. Souvlaki and Gyros have their own variation in Heraklion and are offered with yogurt instead of Tzatziki and a lot (and I mean a lot) of potatoes. My favourite street food in Heraklion is called “Oti thes”. They offer the best “Antikristo” east of Anogia village (the capital of Antikristo!) and very tasty souvlaki.
A modern approach to traditional cuisine
Tradition is quite alive in Crete, as it continues to evolve. That is true both for the local music and the cuisine. There are a lot of more creative approaches to the traditional cooking. You will almost always need a reservation for these restaurants:
- Vourvouladiko. Exceptional dishes and a relaxed ambiance. The pace is slow but it’s well worth the wait. Nestled in an old house with a lovely, jasmine-scented garden, it’s perfect for dinner.
- Apiri offers the most creative cuisine of all, and it truly sets the standard for good food in Heraklion. There’s a nice atmosphere and the staff are professional yet friendly.
- Peskesi. Very rare and old recipes are combined with new ideas to offer an authentic and at the same time modern experience. The building itself is an old house with a labyrinth-like architecture.
- Mavros Katis, located in a gallery that leads to a hidden urban garden, combines modern rock and electronic music with traditional(-ish) cuisine.
Of course, there are a way more options than this small list in the city and even more in the surrounding villages. Use this guide as a starting point and don’t be afraid to explore and try other places, too. It’s very difficult to find something that is not at least decent in Heraklion!