by Katherine Poseidon
Most travellers visiting Greece know that they are in for some delicious eating, and even if you have no idea what to expect, you've probably heard of something known as either souvláki or gýros or perhaps even kebáb. This ubiquitous street food is certainly a simple solution when you’re ravenous after a day of adventure tours in Athens, but there is no perfect souvlaki recipe and most Greeks feel strongly about their preferred combination. The choices can be a bit overwhelming, so we’ve broken it down to help you find your souvlaki soulmate.
Anatomy of a Souvlaki
Greeks take their bread seriously, and the bread-y wrapping of a souvlaki is no exception. The classic souvlaki is wrapped in a píta, usually pre-grilled and/or seasoned. The best pitas are fluffy and light, thick enough to absorb delicious juices from inside the souvlaki without getting soggy or greasy. (Not to be confused with Arabic-style pita, which have a pocket inside if you open them up.)
Souvlaki and gyros are often, but not always, served wrapped up in a pita. This kind of wrap is known as tylihtó (literally, wrapped). If you order a merída, a ‘serving,’ you’ll get the same components of the wrap but laid out on a platter, either on top of the pita or with the pita in pieces on the side. If you order just the meat (see below!), you’ll probably be asked if you want bread with it, and if you say yes you’ll get a few slices of a regular, nondescript white loaf.
Vegetarians, look away. This is where things get serious. First off, souvlaki and gyros are not the same. Soúvla actually means skewer, so souvlaki refers to cubes of meat on a skewer, usually cooked on a grill. These are most commonly pork or chicken, and you can order them either tylihtó in a pita, or as a merída, served on a platter. You can also order your souvlaki as a kalamáki, which refers to the wooden skewer the meat is cooked on. If you ask for a kalamaki, you will be handed the stick with meat, a slice of lemon and usually a piece of bread.
Gýros, on the other hand, roughly means ‘round and round,’ a reference to the rotisserie the meat is cooked on. Thin slices of meat (usually chicken or pork, but sometimes a mixture including lamb) are seasoned and stacked vertically on a spit, and when the outside layer is cooked through, the meat is shaved off into thin strips.
The third choice, kebáb, is less common than souvlaki and gyros, but you will also find ground meat cooked on a stick available both wrapped up in a pita or served in merída form. One of the best known (and most delicious) varieties of the kebab is yiaourtlú - a Turkish word that means 'with yoghurt.' Kebáb yiaourtlú is an incredible layered combination of flat pita, spiced kebab meat, yoghurt, and a chunky spicy tomato sauce on top.
The traditional sauce inside most Greek souvlaki is the well-known tzatzíki - a refreshing spread made from yoghurt, cucumber and garlic that is the perfect complement to a classic pork gyro or souvlaki.
You may also encounter another sauce confusingly known as 'sauce' (but pronounced in Greek as sOHs), especially if you order chicken. This is a mayonnaise-based, mustard-y sauce that some souvlaki joints use as a default - so make sure to specify if you want tzatziki!
On the more exotic side, tomato-based spicy sauces can also be found, most famously at Kostas in Platia Agias Eirinis (check out our cheat sheet below!), but this sauce is also ubiquitous at souvlaki joints all over Northern Greece.
So you've managed to figure out your meat, your sauce, and your wrapping, but that still makes for a pretty naked souvlaki. Most places will beef up their offerings with a few other delicious stuffings. The classics are thinly sliced tomato and red onion, which help cut the heaviness of the meat, while you may also find some places that add a few slices of lettuce or parsley.
It's also become increasingly common for shops to fatten up their souvlakia by including chips/french fries inside. It seems like blasphemy, and for purists it is, but the tzatziki/potato combination is truly mouthwatering.
Usually the souvlaki masters will ask you what else you want inside your pita, in addition to the meat. If you want to try everything, you can say 'ap'óla,' and with or without potatoes: mé (with) or xorís (without) patátes.
Now that we've (hopefully) thoroughly whetted your appetite and gotten your mouth watering, where can you test out your newly-acquired souvlaki expertise?
We should note that if you're desperate and hungry, you can usually find at least one neighbourhood souvlaki joint open late into the night for serious cravings, but if you're looking for something truly delicious, we've gathered together a short list of the 7 best souvlaki places in central Athens.
#1 Kostas, Platia Agias Eirinis - Athens' Hidden Gem
This place is easy to miss inside busy Agias Eirinis Square - you may notice it only because of the line spilling out of the tiny shop front. This joint is completely no frills - a few benches outside and that's it. Kostas opened its doors in 1946, when the current Kostas' father began churning out some of Athens' best, and it has had a loyal following ever since. Here it's impossible to be overwhelmed by choice - you can either order pork souvlaki (cubes on a skewer) or little patties (biftekia), wrapped in a pita or served with french fries. Kostas' claim to fame is his peppery tomato sauce - there's nothing like it in Athens.
Pro Tip: Kostas closes at 5pm, so make sure you get there earlier in the day to be sure not to miss out. Also, his drinks cooler is right by the door going in - if you're parched and impatient, crack open a cold beer and sip while you wait, paying for your drink along with your souvlaki once you reach the end of the queue. When your souvlaki is in hand, try and find a place in the square for people watching in one of Athens' bustling areas.
Where: 2 Agias Eirinis Square
Closest Metro Station: Monastiraki
Other Infor mation: http://bit.ly/28LHp6G
#2 Kostas, Syntagma - Stress-Free Souvlaki
Wait, there are two Kostas? Yes, and this gets confusing. However it also saves disagreement over whose souvlaki is best. Greeks can get into heated conversations over where to find the best souvlaki (this is serious business after all), and if your simple answer is 'Kostas,' you can pacify two factions in one go.
Like the other Kostas, this is an all-time classic favourite which is a little idiosyncratic - a sign on the wall reads 'Our souvlaki is great… but no stress.' Another thing both Kostas have in common is their popularity - but this Kostas will actually close up shop if he runs out of food. Either way he closes around 3, so to avoid disappointment try and arrive by midday. The speciality here is either souvlaki or kebab, served in a fluffy pita with yoghurt, onion, tomato and parsley.
Tip: For those with an iron stomach, you can even hit Kostas early in the morning. He opens up around 9 or 10, and it's a sure way to beat the crowd!
Where: 5 Pentelis, Syntagma
Closest Metro Station: Syntagma
Other Information: http://4sq.com/28K8rru
#3 Elvis - Late Night Munchies in Gazi/Metaxourgeio
If you find yourself in the area of Gazi or Metaxourgeio with a craving for something delicious and meaty, Elvis will not let you down. This is one of our top choices for high quality meat (remember our guide to healthy eating in Athens?), and it offers only a few choices to keep things simple.
At Elvis you can order pork or chicken souvlaki, kebab made from ground lamb or beef, or sausage, all grilled and served directly on the skewer. For extra munchies they also offer fresh french fries and little fluffy pitas, as well as Cretan raki to wash it all down.
Tip: This is a real street food place - there are only a few raised tables outside the tiny corner store, but the souvlaki is so good it doesn't matter. Standing and nibbling a fresh souvlaki, especially late at night, is a classic Greek experience.
Where: 29 Plataion, Metaxourgeio
Closest Metro Station: Kerameikos
Other Information: http://4sq.com/28KtmNP
#4 Kalamaki Kolonaki - Trendy Street Food in Kolonaki
For similarly high-quality meat in the posh area of Kolonaki, Kalamaki Kolonaki will fulfill all your souvlaki cravings and more. In addition to the classic pork and chicken souvlaki, you can also order grilled rib-eye, turkey breast and salmon on a skewer, either individually or as a merida served with french fries.
The menu here is pretty diverse, so if you'd like something a little greener to complement your meat-y feast, you'll find a rich variety of salads as well as dips, including but not limited to the classic tzatziki sauce.
Where: 32 Ploutarchou, Kolonaki
Closest Metro Station: Evangelismos
Other Information: http://bit.ly/28PAKJw
#5 Meatropoleos 3 - A Syntagma Standby
If you're around Syntagma and have missed Kostas (who closes around 3pm), Meatropoleos 3 is an easy backup. It may lack the charm of Kostas' tiny storefront, but it does have solidly delicious souvlaki, considerably more variety, and tables spread out right in the heart of Syntagma Square. You'll find usual classics like pork and chicken souvlaki, as well as sausage and kebab, plus beef and turkey patties all on the grill. Because each stick is pretty small, you can order a variety for taste tasting, or if you're starving after a day of sightseeing in Athens, they also offer steak and larger servings.
The menu also includes substantial salads, both traditional and non-traditional, and a variety of classic Greek side dishes including halloumi, french fries, and of course tzatziki.
Where: 3 Mitropoleos, Syntagma
Closest Metro Station: Syntagma
Other Information: http://bit.ly/28K9FUy
#6 Kavouras - Exarchia's Late Night Spot
Open until around 3am, this place embodies the souvlaki-as-late-night-snack-after-a-night-out vibe. Kavouras has been in the neighbourhood since 1969, and has a loyal following among Athenians who affectionately remember late night snacks at this joint.
It's probably not worth a special trip to sample their menu, but if you find yourself in the area with a craving for something a little greasy, late night souvlaki is one of the classic things to do in Athens.
Where: 66 Themistokleous, Exarchia
Closest Metro Station: Omonoia
Other Information: http://4sq.com/28MeuQf
#7 Thanasis - Monastiraki Square Classic
The truth is that most Athenians would tell you to steer clear of the aggressive Souvlaki hawkers in the corner of Monastiraki Square, who compete to grab passers-by to fill their tables. This can be off-putting, but if you're around Monastiraki or Plaka and want an authentic Greek tourist experience, find (or let yourself be steered to) a seat at Thanasis and watch the frenzy unfold around you.
The food choices here are fairly straightforward too - Thanasis is known for his kebabs, which you can order in either pork, chicken or lamb, wrapped up in a pita or served on a platter as a merida. Note - the platter includes four sticks of kebab, so be ready to tuck in! You can order a variety of accompaniments, including tzatziki sauce, french fries, and Greek salad.
Tip: On each table next to the salt shakers you'll find paprika - sprinkle a little onto your kebab for a richer and more authentic flavour!
Where: 69 Mitropoleos, Monastiraki
Closest Metro Station: Monastiraki
Other Information: http://othanasis.com/
One Souvlaki, Two Souvlakia: A Vocabulary Cheat Sheet
Just in case you can't think over the grumbling of your stomach, here's a quick list of the most important words to know for the true souvlaki conoisseur.
Píta - the round, flat bread used to wrap a souvlaki Also refers to the whole wrapped thing (for example, you can say 'I'd like one pita with pork souvlaki and tzatziki).
Tylihtó - wrapped up, literally. This means your soulvaki will come in a convenient form that fits right into your hand, and then straight to your stomach! Pro-tip: Pitas are usually wrapped tight in foil or paper. For the least-messy meal, tear strips of the wrapping off as you go, rather than unwrapping it all at once. And watch out for drippings from the bottom!
Souvláki - literally means a skewer, and refers to chunks of meat (on a skewer), cooked on a grill. Souvlaki is also the ubiquitous name for any variety of wrapped up pita with meat - you can say 'I'm really craving a souvlaki right now,' even if you decide you would prefer gyros.
Gýros - pronounced: yee-ros (this is important!); refers to the vertical rotisserie that goes 'gyro-gyro' (round and round); and the meat that is shaved off of it; can be a pork, chicken, or a combination of meat.
Kebáb - ground beef or lamb grilled on a skewer; served either straight on the skewer or on a platter; most delicious variation is kebáb yiaourtlú, with yoghurt and tomato sauce.
Kalamáki - thin wooden skewer that souvlaki is cooked on; one kalamaki is the skewer with the meat, usually served with just a lemon and a piece of bread. This shouldn't set you back more than 2 euros at any local souvlaki place.
Merída - a serving; this means that whatever meat you choose will be served on a platter, with the usual fixings (tzatziki/sauce, tomato, onion, pita). Beware that this choice is usually at least double the price of the wrapped (tylixto) souvlaki, so if you're economising make sure you specify.
Sto Héri - literally 'in hand'; this means that you want your souvlaki to take away, but rather than wrap it up for you to carry with you they'll give it to you partially wrapped so you can eat it right away. (Take your souvlaki and find somewhere to sit and people watch - one of the best things to do outside in Athens!)
Ap’Óla - with everything; beware that this may not mean the same thing everywhere you go, but usually includes at least tomato and onion, and possibly potatoes.
Mé/Xorís Patátes - with or without potatoes.
Tzatzíki - classic souvlaki sauce, made with yoghurt, cucumber and garlic.
Sos - this generically means ‘sauce’ but is pronounced sOHs. It's mayonnaise-based mustardy sauce.
Are you feeling hungry yet?
Let your stomach guide you to one of our favourite Athens souvlaki joints.
Discover the best souvlaki near you with this map of Athens
Make your own souvlaki!
Prepare your own souvlaki like a pro with these fantastic recipes:
A home-made gyros recipe:
And a home-made souvlaki recipe:
Sharing is caring, so we can't wait to hear what is YOUR favourite souvlaki combination and YOUR suggestions for the best souvlaki in Athens!
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