If you land at the brand new Venizelos airport on the edge of Athens during the next month, spare a thought for your Ancient Greek counterparts. While they had to endure camp sites and lodgings which were a virtual mud bath for all but the super-rich, this time around the host city of the Olympic Games has been preparing to offer something a little more luxurious on the hospitality front. In the restaurant sector, in particular, the city has seen a flowering of independents and new chain concepts in the run-up to the games.
First, though, is that airport - an amazing facility that makes other modern hubs seem cramped. Here, you can witness the upsurge in quick service and fast casual restaurants that has been such a feature of the Athenian and Greek food scene recently. This vibrant market - Greeks love their sandwiches, coffee and outdoor snacks in general - sustains significant home-grown players such as Everest and Gregory's, each with a portfolio of over-the-counter brands.
The closer you journey into the heart of Olympic Athens, though, the more the snack scene recedes. Following the ancient way up to the Acropolis now means an encounter with a new eating and drinking experience that some industry specialists believe is set to change the way that Athenians dine out. The first sign of this, at the bottom of the new walkway leading up to the Parthenon, is the gaggle of caf‚s serving a young international crowd. Among them, Flocaf‚ has responded to the growing trend of restaurants that are open day and night to suit new Athenian habits.
This trend started at the city's upmarket clubs, says Iannis Avgeros of the Golden Phoenix, a leading Athens ethnic chain. Mirroring a global phenomenon, modern Athenians want to go out for a meal, drink and later dance at a single venue, rather than going to two or three spots in a night. So far, the prices in clubs such as these remain high but, with Flocaf‚ serving main meals as well as drinks late into the night, grazing is catching on.
Twenty years ago, when the Athens Ledra Marriott and the InterContinental hotels opened, dining out in Athens meant one thing - the traditional taverna. The new hotels created a watershed, attracting a large number of locals to sample international food for the first time. And this wasn't just in the hotels' impressive restaurants - food festivals introduced customers to the cooking of other countries, from Britain to Sweden to Morocco.
The Greeks were delighted, and when those who had trained in the hotels left to start their own businesses, the result was an explosion of independent restaurants.
Looking back over those 20 years, the depth of the restaurant scene in Athens is impressive. "We don't need to feel jealous of other European cities," says Avgeros. "If you want to eat French-style haute cuisine, it's available, often with a local twist, in the city's clutch of Michelin-starred restaurants, like Spondi and Vardis." Places such as these often have a French- or Spanish-trained head chef, an example being the acclaimed new trendy spot, the 48 Restaurant, which boasts a chef who worked at El Bulli in Spain, and who offers a lighter version of French food to match the heat of the Greek climate.
"Lighter" is the name of the game at all levels. Now that the Athenian scene has blossomed in so many directions, from Mediterranean to Asian ("ethnic" in Greece means anything non-Greek), there has been a backlash in favour of the traditional taverna.
Not only are Athenians returning to their roots, but a new phenomenon has appeared in the neo (new) taverna. Here, you can expect different decor and lighter fare, plus the basic elements of restaurant service (a menu and a wine list), to make the point that this is no longer the old style. But essentially the concept is the same: some music, hearty traditional food and an average spend in the g20-g25 (£13.30-£16.64) range, against g15-g20 (£10-£13.30) for the older version.
It is in the quick casual market, however, that the most dramatic changes have been seen over the past couple of years. An intriguing new concept, Wok 88, from the Gregory's fast food group, is an Asian version of McDonald's - a cashier serves up rice and noodle dishes rather than hamburgers.
At the same time, the Golden Phoenix group, which helped develop Wok 88, has come up with Vietnam, to complement its four upscale Chinese restaurants. The group, already the leading Asian chain in the city, is to expand further next year with another quick casual dining concept currently in development.
On your marks
In terms of preparing for the Olympics, the food and beverage director at the Marriott, Kostas Tzannetos, finds himself in the eye of the storm. A year ago, amid spiralling concerns about food distribution channels and transport within the city, his fear, shared with much of the hospitality community, was that the games might be difficult for restaurateurs. Have these worries been justified?
For the most part it seems they haven't, as Athens has been divided into two zones. In one, deliveries will be restricted to the hours of midnight through to 7am. In the much larger second zone, restaurants will be able to receive goods throughout the day. Tzannetos says this is working well. Suppliers have been well prepared by the Athens Olympic Committee and, with government and police help, have learned to make crucial overnight deliveries so efficiently that some prefer the temporary arrangement.
So, if restaurant industry fears about transportation have been largely quelled, are restaurant operators positive about the Olympic effect? Things aren't that simple, for two reasons.
First, Athens has seen falling tourist numbers of late as package holiday operators often bypass the city, ferrying holiday-makers directly to the islands. That said, customer figures are expected to include a higher-than-average number of locals staying in the city to soak up the Olympic atmosphere. The Golden Phoenix chain, for one, is expecting a 10-15% increase across the month.
Second, locals themselves are feeling nervous. Many new jobs, especially in construction, have been created in the run-up to the games. But even if Athenians are making a good living, they're cautious in their spending habits, and restaurants have felt the effects. Coupled with the global economic downturn, fears about the future of the Athenian economy mean that even high-spenders prefer to patronise restaurants in the g25-a-head bracket rather than those where the pricing is nearer g50-plus. The result is that upscale restaurants are suffering, even as their quality continues to thrive, and are having to think about diversifying.
Despite these concerns, restaurants in Athens may be on the brink of one of their most exciting phases yet. As habits change and food offerings become more creative, Athenians - who love to dine out three or more times a week - are ready to welcome a new breed of restaurant mixing the authentic tones of the best Greek venues with an international flair, available 24 hours a day.
The enthusiasm fuelling these changes is evident in the city. Athens may have had a bad press over the past few years, but many Greeks knew in their hearts that the Olympic preparations would all come together. From the gelling of the transport infrastructure to the current pre-event buzz, all the elements are in place for Athenians and visitors alike to let their hair down and to enjoy the simple pleasures of the Greek table. n
Eating out in Athens
Seven of the best - at all levels
Nea Hydria, 68 Adrianou Street Not just for tourists - though it gets them. Chilled-out in the day. At night, it's as you'd expect for a place with this amount of style.
Vardis, Hotel Pentelikon, 62 Deligianni Street, Kifisia. Tel: 00 30 210 623 0650. www.hotelpentelikon.gr
Pricey for Athens but the food holds its own, and there's a lovely terrace. Rival to Spondi.
Plous Podilatou, 42 Akti Koumoundourou, Mikrolimano, Piraeus. Tel: 00 30 210 413 7910. www.plous-podilatou.gr Modern food, and an idyllic harbourside spot. Forget you're in the city. You practically aren't - but it's worth the trip.
Quick Pitta, 55 Mitropoleos Street. Tel: 00 30 210 324 9285 Kebabs with attitude - and a nice space to eat them in.
Coffee Right, 90 Leoforio Syggrou. Tel: 00 30 210 924 6205 Home-grown Starbucks - a bright, shiny place to escape from the heat and suck down iced coffee.
Tzatzos, 45 Beikou Street Did somebody say baklava? Here it is by the acre - and every other Greek pastry under the sun.
Benaki Museum, Odos Koumbari 1, Basilissis Sofias Avenue. Tel: 00 31 210 367 1000 The quietest spot in the city. A place for the morning - or afternoon - after the night before.