Close your eyes and let me set the scene: You’re in the southernmost tip of Southeast Europe, on an island full of Byzantine churches and white stone villages. From where you sit in an agora, you can hear the waves lapping at the shore, feel the sun beaming down on your face, and smell the freshly caught octopus sauteed in garlic. Your mouth waters and you can almost taste it. And then you open your eyes, yet, how can it be? It’s all (sort of) true but (surprise!) you’re in Astoria, Queens.
Walking around Astoria, there is a decidedly European feel to the neighborhood: wide shady streets, underpasses, and families lingering over wine at outdoor tavernas. Residents in this area, like most of New York, reflect a wide range of ethnicities (for example, “Little Egypt” on Steinway) but it has long been an area for Greek immigrants. You will hear the Greek language spoken on Ditmars Boulevard and enjoy the oceanic decor that may seem more appropriate in a fishing village. Mediterranean restaurants abound serving up fresh seafood, moussaka, crisp Greek salads and always finishing with a sticky, house-made dessert.
The famous Greek philosopher, Socrates, is thought to have said that “The best seasoning for food is hunger; for drink, thirst.” Keeping that in mind, you should come to Astoria ravenous. The portions are enormous and you will be bringing home leftovers, not to mention the goods you will not be able to resist at the bakeries and specialty stores in the area. The prices are extremely reasonable in exchange for the amount of food you will receive, so much so that you’ll be encouraged to order more, stay longer, linger over dessert, and order just another carafe of Greek wine for the table…
Your culture fix before you eat
The area of Astoria you’ll be visiting is smack in the middle of three great cultural institutions in Queens, each about a 35-minute walk away (or a five-minute Uber ride, or a short trip on the N train to Ditmars Blvd.). Socrates Sculpture Park would be the thematic choice, a free waterfront sculpture garden with rotating exhibits that is open every day of the year. (You may want to check the website for exhibits in the event that they are in the midst of changing one out for the next.) If the weather isn’t cooperating, you can still get your sculpture fix at the extremely pleasant Noguchi Museum, where organic shapes and a rock garden will soothe your mind. The Museum of the Moving Image specializes in exhibits surrounding television, movies, and digital media with current shows featuring Jim Henson and an upcoming show (opening January 18th) featuring Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey. Pro tip: visit the museums in the area first, so you aren’t weighted down with food that needs refrigeration.
Your Greek feast
There are so many Greek restaurants in the area that it would be impossible to visit all of them in one trip or even one weekend. Everyone will tell you that if you can only go to one, make it Taverna Kyclades. A seafood-centric restaurant with indoor and patio seating, the restaurant was bustling on the day we went. Fake grapes hang from the trellis ceiling, giant fish are mounted to walls, and the fresh seafood coming out of the kitchen will have you believe you are at a seaside bistro. The food comes out family-style, with a focus on seafood: whole fish, crab-meat stuffed shrimp or baby shark are all options on the menu. We order a mountain of pan-fried calamari rings, notable for the sheer size of the order, but also for the quality and tender texture. The small Greek Salad could feed a small family with fresh bright tomatoes, olives, cucumbers and peppers, all hidden underneath a flat slab of seasoned feta. Along with the check comes a piece of moist, sweet housemade baklava. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations, so be prepared to wait. Taverna Kyclades, 3307 Ditmars Blvd., Astoria.
A few blocks away, an unassuming taverna sits on a corner minding its own business. Inside you’ll find a laid back, comfortable vibe with tables decorated with seashells and beige-checkered tablecloths, needlepoint paintings hung on the wall along with fishing nets. Here we order glasses of Greek wine and pick the meat from grilled sardines and slice the long tentacles of the octopus appetizer. The fish is recommended but others around us ordered meats—gyros of flatbread wrapped around morsels of beef and vegetables, and souvlaki plates that looked delicious. Whichever the main dish, save room for the delicious desserts they bring with the check, in this instance, Greek halva, a cube of honeyed farina. Gregorys 26 Corner Taverna, 26-02 23rd Avenue, Astoria.
Across the street from Gregorys is E Taverna. If we had rolled ourselves up to a table of the inviting restaurant, we would have surely ordered the Pikilia assortment of spreads, steaming flatbread, oversized spanakopita, and maybe an order of Halloumi grilled cheese. Thankfully, unlike a trip to Greece, Astoria is right around the corner, allowing time to come back and graze again. E Taverna, 2619 23rd Avenue, Astoria.
In New York, it seems strange for a destination bakery to be sandwiched inside a minimall, but somehow here it works. The aroma of freshly baked treats will lure you inside where you’ll find a scene out of a Keebler Elf commercial, with more kinds of cookies than you ever knew existed: Powdered almond butter cookies, shortbread cookies, biscuits, and elephant ears, arranged in mounds all over the store, ready for the taking. You’ll also find cakes and specialties like Galaktoboureko and countless types of baklava. I tried to order a box of traditional baklava to take to a dinner party, and it was impossible to leave without at least trying a few other of their delectable flavors. Plus, I needed dozens of cookies. They put it all in a box, tied in a pretty bow, at a reasonable price. Artopolis Bakery, 23-18 31st St, Astoria
Titan is a specialty store that specializes in Greek goods. Think Sahadi’s, but Mediterranean style. There is an olive bar, a bakery, an incredible cheese section and aisles of small-batch delights like olive oils straight from Greece and pretty packages of biscuits. I indulged my curiosity for specialty foods I hadn’t heard of and put together a small gift basket of Hellenic-themed treats for a friend. If you enjoy cooking, this spot should definitely be on your radar. Titan Foods, 25-56 31st St., Astoria