The beauty of souvlaki, Greece’s most popular street food, is its simplicity. Its name is a diminutive of the Greek word souvla, which means skewer. Essentially, it’s meat on a skewer, grilled over charcoal and served in various ways, most commonly wrapped in pita bread along with sliced tomatoes, onions and yoghurt.
But souvlaki has infinite variations and a rich history that goes back centuries. Initially referred to as obeliscos (or ‘spit’) this classic Greek dish is described in several ancient texts, including Homer’s Iliad and Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists. Obeliscoi were sold at thermopolia, places that sold hot food and wine.
Back then, meat skewers were grilled on beautifully crafted stone or ceramic sets with fitted skewers known as krateftes. Some of these barbeques were unearthed recently at Akrotiri on Santorini, proving that souvlaki was popular even back in the 17th century BC. Ancient skewers and grills used across the Hellenistic world can be seen in archaeological museums around Greece, including the Agora Museum in downtown Athens. The tradition was adopted by the Romans and survived in Byzantium and the Ottoman era, when street vendors in Constantinople began selling skewered meat with pita bread.
There are certainly plenty of good souvlatzidika (souvlaki joints) around Athens serving up kalamaki, kebab, gyros, and more. And then there are the legendary venues—the so-called specialists—who have each perfected the dish in their own unique way. Here’s where you’ll find them and what to order.