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.
Souvlaki in its simplest form. Grilled pieces of pork or chicken on a wooden skewer (kalamaki), seasoned with salt, oregano and sometimes pepper, served with a lemon wedge and a slice of bread or pita. The quality of the ingredients matters here, as well as the seasoning and grilling, of course. Enjoy straight away, while still hot and juicy, and be generous with the lemon juice.
- 2 Kanigos, Historic Centre, 106 77
- +30 210 383 2413
Kostas Agias Irinis
Pieces of skewered meat, again primarily pork or chicken, are wrapped in grilled pita bread along with sliced tomatoes and pleasantly sweet-and-spicy red onions. Every souvlaki joint has tricks to make their wrap stand out from the competition. Some add tzatziki (yoghurt sauce with grated cucumber and garlic), others plain, thick yoghurt. Chopped parsley and thinly sliced green peppers are occasionally added, as well as ‘special’ sauces. Some places throw in chips too, but for me the meat should really be the star. Customise your wrap any way you like, adding or omitting ingredients. The simpler, the better in my opinion.
The name gyro, meaning ‘spin around’, refers to the way the meat is cooked in slow rotation, helping the fat to drip away until the result is almost crispy, but still deliciously moist. Seasoned pieces of pork or chicken are layered on a vertical rotisserie. The seasoning is vital: the basic ingredients are salt, pepper, garlic and oregano, although extra herbs or spices are often added to the mix. The cooked meat is thinly shaved and either wrapped into bulging pillows of pita bread or served on a plate along with sliced tomatoes, onions and pita, often with extra helpings of tzatziki and chips.
- 9-12 Ithakis, Kypseli, 112 57
- +30 210 821 1369
In Greece, the term kebab refers specifically to a more oriental dish, imported by Armenian and Greek refugees from Istanbul and Asia Minor. Sausage-shaped patties of minced meat (traditionally a mix of lamb and beef) are flavoured with garlic, cumin and other Middle Eastern spices. The kebab is wrapped in pita bread, just like the typical tylichto (wrapped souvlaki), or served on a plate.
Mikra Asia Platia Amerikis
Bifteki—grilled patties of minced meat, seasoned with salt, pepper, oregano, and plenty of chopped onion and parsley—is a really popular dish in Greece. Most restaurants offer some form of bifteki: plain, stuffed with cheese, topped with chopped tomatoes or slathered in a secret sauce. Some souvlaki joints cater to meatball lovers by stuffing miniature biftekia into pita bread, with all the usual trimmings.
This oversized souvlaki is popular among locals, but less known to visitors. Even though it literally means “short skewer,” the brochette used to cook kontosouvli is actually quite long and slim. Larger chunks of marinated meat are alternated with onion, tomato, and peppers and slow-cooked on a rotisserie over an open charcoal pit. The result is luscious, tender and very, very tasty.
The “new souvlaki”
It’s not surprising that such a popular street food, enjoyed by Greeks for centuries, continues to evolve. Athenian chefs are giving souvlaki a modern twist, whether that means healthier versions or a more sophisticated take. At Hoocut, a joint venture between five successful chefs, the pita bread is baked in-house and top-quality cuts of meat (including mutton and premium beef) are thinly cut before grilling—like gyros, but with a leaner result. Kalamaki Kolonaki doesn't do souvlaki wraps. Mini white, whole wheat or corn pita bread is served alongside skewers of ribeye beef, pork, salmon, chicken and turkey. They also do excellent salads and sides. Labrinaki offers a range of vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options. My favourite is the mushroom souvlaki with yoghurt sauce wrapped in cornmeal pita.