Creative young foodies are changing Thessaloniki. After years of economic crisis, their almost playful approach is restoring the Greek city’s former confidence.
Finding the best cocktails in Thessaloniki involves squeezing into a photo booth in the Three Pieces bistro, snapping a pic and entering a code on a keypad – before a door opens on a space just big enough for 15 people. Behind the bar: Achilleas Plakidas, 29, last year’s winner of the Greek bartender championship World Class Greece. He and two friends run two bars and a restaurant on Verias Street in waterside Ladadika district: the Gorílas, the Three Pieces and the Mahalo Civilized Food. “When we started out in 2016, there were only a handful of stores here, selling plastic pails and other stuff,” says Plakidas. “Thanks to us, Verias is now the city’s nightlife strip.”
It’s mostly young people who are altering the face of Thessaloniki. At first glance, the northern Greek city of roughly 325 000 looks gray and unwelcoming, but behind its crumbling facades, bars and restaurants are opening that could easily hold their own in London or New York; bars whose craft beer labels are as decorative as the waiters’ forearms and have nothing in common with a traditional taverna. Groups of friends frequently join forces to test gastro-concepts as rents are low and anyway, why not? The density of bars and restaurants in Thessaloniki, which has over 150 000 students, is said to be higher than in Berlin. “The future belongs to whose who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” Plakidas has this sentence tattooed (in German) on the back of his neck, and it represents the palpable sense of renewal since the financial crisis ended. “I wake up every day thinking of ways to make Thessaloniki an even better place to live,” he says, as we descend into the basement of the Gorílas, where a secret door leads to a lab full of distillery apparatus and test tubes. “This is where we create new flavors for our drinks,” says Plakidas, reaching for a big-bellied glass bottle containing a crystal-clear Irish whisky distillate, Greek cookies, espresso beans and banana liqueur. “Five years ago, most bars in Thessaloniki were still serving cheap drinks and playing mainstream music. We wanted to change that,” says the young restaurateur.
The three friends’ entrepreneurial spirit inspired emulation, for instance the startup Elektronio, which makes battery-driven trikes that are perfect for cruising along Thessaloniki’s roughly 4.5-kilometer beach promenade; or the four friends from student days who are experimenting with Thessaloniki’s culinary heritage at the Maitr & Margarita. Some 100 years ago, Thessaloniki was part of the Ottoman Empire and known as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans” for its once large Jewish community. The squid stuffed with bulgur, raisins and fennel that Lampros Rossios cooks here is sweet and savory at once. If you thought all Greek food tasted the same, three mouthfuls in Thessaloniki will dispel such preconceptions.
Right now, running your own restaurant or café is the most secure job you can have in Thessaloniki
At the end of the street, a record store has moved onto the roof of a building full of lawyers’ offices. Below the alarmingly low railing of its roof terrace, Thessaloniki looks like an untidy drawer. We see buildings with roofs full of holes, apartment blocks climbing the hill behind us and huge container ships gliding through the Gulf of Thérmai in the distance. Mount Olympus, visible on clear days, must be somewhere in the clouds as well. The home of the gods is one of the few constants in a city that was nearly destroyed twice, first by fire in 1917 and then by an earthquake in 1978. So the city has reinvented itself before. Young people are the ones repairing and renewing it, pitching in to rescue buildings and painting facades in bright colors.
The pioneering mood is also bringing locals back from abroad, like Danai Spania, 29, who organizes culinary city tours. She studied tourism management in England and Sweden and worked in New Zealand and Qatar before returning to Thessaloniki two years ago. “I show tourists how the city has changed and how diverse it is,” she says. The best places are easy to miss because they are tucked away in areas where gentrification is less visible than near the waterfront promenade. Danai takes us to a food stall, where we sample bougatsa, filled phyllo pastries that were reputedly popular during the Byzantine Empire. At a bakery, we sink our teeth into koulouri, crispy sesame rings, and on the roof terrace of the To Palio Hamam café bar, we sip Greek coffee above an Ottoman bathhouse dating from 1444.
1 Maitr & Margarita
3 Three Pieces
4 Mahalo Civilized Food
5 Ypsilon Bar
7 Café-bar to Palio Hamam
Back in Ladadika, at the Ypsilon bar: “This 19th-century building was a ruin in 2015,” says Danai. “Then six friends from the arts and theater scene turned it into a restaurant, coworking and performance space.” In the bar, we meet Katerina Mamali, 32, who returned to Thessaloniki after studying fashion in New York. “I knew I wouldn’t find work in my trade here, but I wanted to come back because the city vibe is so great,” she says. “Everyone can try something new at the Ypsilon. Unknown artists regularly show their work and bands perform here.”
The day is drawing to a close and the cafés and bars on Emporiou Square are almost full. Outside Fanos Tis Polis – a meeting place for actors and directors during the annual film festival in November – people are sitting out on the street on colorful wooden chairs. Nearby, a skeletal tower block stretches skyward, but nobody gives it a thought – there are so many of them around. Thessaloniki won’t win a beauty contest, but quitting isn’t an option here, especially for the young. They have preferred to create their own jobs, like Vasilis Kyziridis, 33, Antonis Moustakis, 31, and Savvas Michailidis, 31, who own the Extravaganza restaurant. When they opened in 2013, Savvas had just lost his banking job. Their restaurant with its minimalist, Scandinavian-style design, serves artfully arranged dishes that diners usually photograph before they pick up their forks. “We mix Greek cuisine with culinary influences from across the world, fill steamed buns like those found in Asia with smoked meat and Cretan herbs,” says Savvas. And Antonis, a trained cook, sums up once again what drives people here: “Running your own restaurant or café is the most secure job you can have in Thessaloniki.”
STROLL AND SAMPLE
Book a local culinary guide from Epiculiar Tours for a personal insight into what the city cooks up.
Enjoy the comforts of The Mood Luxury Rooms just steps away from the sea and the best restaurants in town.
Not far from Thessaloniki, the waves of the Mediterranean lap against the white beaches of Chalkidiki Peninsula.
VISIT THE PAST
Take a walk through history as you explore Thessaloniki, from the Roman Rotunda temple to the Ottoman Baths.