Eating out in Crete
Food is a very important ingredient in life…
…and good food, for most people, is an integral part of a good holiday. I wouldn’t qualify the Greek and Cretan cuisine as anything near high gastronomy but where they can often win is on freshness of ingredients and of course the setting: a simple salad eaten on a shaded terrace overlooking the sea will possibly give you a longer lasting memory than an elaborate meal inside a fancy restaurant.
Eating out in Crete has its own customs. You will not offend if you do not follow them because Cretans are used to foreigners and pretty broad-minded. Still, knowing the do’s and don’ts might save some awkward moments.
Most of what is written below does not really apply to touristic restaurants where people have gotten used to the ways of the “xeni” (foreigners).
Lunch is generally eaten at about 2.00pm and dinner no earlier than 9.00pm. This is why if you walk around looking for a restaurant patronised by the “locals” as a sign of quality, it is very likely to be deserted before 9.00pm.
It is not unusual to arrive at a restaurant at midnight, especially in summer.
Ordering and eating
For Cretans, a meal is a social occasion and accordingly, food is ordered for the “table”, not for the individuals. You order a bit of everything, spread it around the table, or more often cover the table with different dishes and everybody picks at everything. If or when more food is needed, more is ordered. There is also quite an element of status involved in the ordering and it is not uncommon for Greeks to order far too much, either to show off their status or show their generosity. This unfortunately leads to a fair amount of food being wasted.
You can of course stick to the Western habit of not sharing food but order for each person, they are used to foreigners and their habits, but you will miss out on an enhanced eating experience.
There are almost no Cretan vegetarians but there is plenty of choice for vegetarians and it is quite well accepted that some people don’t eat meat so don’t worry, you won’t starve.
Table manners are pretty lax. The main bad manner would possibly be ordering for yourself when in company.
Use of the fingers instead of forks and knives is very common. After all, food is there to be touched and eaten, not picked at. Eating meat (especially lamb or goat) with a fork and knife is considered a little silly because you are missing out on the most sensual part of the experience.
When pouring wine, don’t fill the glass to the brim, when drinking it, leave a little in your glass until it is being refilled.
What to expect in small out of the way places
I often get irritated when I meet tourists in small tavernas in out of the way places: they come here because it is away from tourism but then expect to be able to choose from a huge menu and complain if the choice is limited. They are obviously in the wrong place and should get back to their resort.
Small villages generally have one or two places where you can eat but it is pretty much an extension of the home kitchen. As such, do not expect much choice, if any. What you can be sure of is that what will be offered is freshly cooked, simple but tasty local food. It will also be cheap. When you get to such a place, don’t ask for the menu but ask what there is to eat today or if you cannot communicate, ask to be shown what is in the pots. Some of the best food I have eaten on Crete was in such places, at a fraction of what you would pay on the coast.
Paying the bill
As with ordering, paying a bill has a lot to do with offering hospitality. I have never seen Cretans sharing the payment of a meal (at least not in a way that could have been visible to others). One will pay for all and there is often a hefty argument about who will have the privilege of paying. As such, if you, a foreigner, are eating with Cretans you will be pretty hard put to foot the bill, unless you resort to sneaky ways such as paying the bill away from the table when no one is looking. Even this can lead to awkwardness because the traditional Cretan hospitality makes it almost a duty to act as the host to foreigners.
Again here, Cretans know that our customs are different and that we sometimes share the cost of meals, but avoid asking for a separate bill for each and work out the share of the bill between yourselves: asking for separate bills is a little like shouting: “Look at us, we are incredibly mean and petty!” and that’s not really what you want to shout, is it?
Cretans find this splitting down of bills to be a deplorable habit and the Greeks have nicknamed this ‘Going German’ (instead of the English ‘Going Dutch’).