Our humble, every day street food strictly eaten on the fly does not belong in the realm of home cooked meals. The ubiquitous street food, Athens souvlaki, has been established as the national street food of the Greeks! Taste it in unlimited variations and find out more about the rich history behind it that goes back centuries…
Join us in our Street Food Tour to taste our delightful souvlaki and five more unique street foods!
The roots of Athens souvlaki
The concept of chunks of meat on a wooden or steel spit roasted above charcoal is a cooking technique that appears in almost every ancient civilisation and today is common in almost every country around the world. However, the earliest references to souvlaki originate in ancient Greece! Several ancient texts, from Homer’s Iliad to Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists, share stories where souvlaki plays an important part in the food culture.
Feasts of the Greek heroes
In ancient times, feasting has a prominent role, along with wine drinking, and as always sacrifice to the gods and libations. Hospitality is not offered only to fellow warriors, but also enemies. In one of Iliad’s rhapsodies, King Priamo of Troy comes to Achilles to beg for the dead body of his son Hector, who was killed by him in the battle. Achilles offers him a meal of truce with skewered meat, and the two men enjoy together a moment of peace away from the horrors of war.
In Deipnosophistai (“The Gastronomers”) Athenaeus, a Greek gourmet, refers to “kandavlos” as a classic dish in aristocratic symposiums. This being the ancient form of Athens souvlaki, kandavlos combined roasted meat, cheese, dill, pita and was originally served with some broth.
A 3.500 year old cooking method
In 1975, during the excavation in the area of Akrotiri (Santorini), archaelogists unearthed portable barbeque holders for skewers dating back to 3.500 years ago! These clay ovens are called “krateutai” and would hold food on a skewer above hot coals. These were designed with small notches to keep the air flowing inside and for fire to keep burning longer. This cooking method was proved to be very healthy, also, since fat was collected underneath. To decorate them, they would hew shapes of animals to them, in this case rams.
Another more modern version was found in the ancient market of Athens, the Agora. Another barbeque with steel spits that dates back to 2.500 years ago and is now an exhibit in the homonymous museum!
Wooden skewers were called “oveliskoi” in Epictetus and Aristotle’s writings. Souvlaki derives either from this word or from the Latin word “subulus” meaning spit. This is how the modern Greek word “souvla” (spit) was born and by adding the suffix –aki, a diminutive meaning small, we now call it souvlaki! In Roman times a popular food on the fly was skewers made of innards sold in their “thermopolia” (joints for hot food and wine), while in Byzantine times Constantinople, skewered meat was sold wrapped in pita bread by the butchers and street vendors of the city.
Souvlaki conquers Athens
In modern Greece, souvlaki was re-entered on 1924 by Isaak Meraklidis, an Armenian who had to flee Asia Minor and came to Athens via Cairo. He opened the first “souvlatzidiko“ (souvlaki joint) , called “Egyptiakon” (Egyptian) still operating in Nikaia area (the best souvlaki in Athens is still to be found in those refugees neighbourhoods). Later on, he opened another restaurant in Monastiraki area. Till now, Monastiraki is the mecca of Athens souvlaki, and all the famous souvlaki makers in Athens – Thanasis, Mpairaktaris, Savvas, started their career from his place.
The initial concept behind souvlaki – during the 1920’s- was to make use of the less wanted part of the animal along with its fat and create a filling meal as “poor man’s food” with “quick” bread, simply made with flour and water. Also, it was a quick solution for the working class that didn’t have time to go back home for lunch. Nowadays, the best cut preferred in most souvlaki recipes is the neck, because it is softer than other parts and does not dry out so easily.
During the 50s, Livadeia, a city in Central Greece, became popular for its pork skewers being served as a takeout along with a slice of bread as drivers would stop over for a quick lunch on the way from Athens to the North. Up until this day, Livadeia is considered one of the best places for grilled meat. By the 60s it started becoming our national street food.
Before “souvlatzidika”, souvlaki was prepared and sold on a food cart. You can still find it sold this way outside stadiums, concerts and by open air markets.
The eternal conflict between the North and the South
In Athens and the southern parts of the country, the wooden stick where souvlaki is roasted is called “kalamaki”, meaning small reed. Keep in mind that if you want a plain skewer like this, without the pita, you need to ask for that! But if you find yourself in the North, for example, in Thessaloniki (the co-capital of Greece) the case is different. The name of the souvlaki is the cause of controversy between the two cities… If you ask for a kalamaki in Thessaloniki, they will make fun of you and hand you a straw instead!
In general, Athens souvlaki is mostly served in a wrap (in Athens you will also find the term “tylichto” which means wrapped) prepared like a full meal! Inside the fluffy pita bread, you find the skewer (traditionally pork or sometimes chicken) along with freshly made fries, refreshing tzatziki sauce, onions and tomato. However, it comes in different variations all over Greece, depending on the region. In other places, for instance in the island of Crete, souvlaki is combined with a light yogurt sauce instead of tzatziki.
What are the fries doing in my souvlaki?
In the past, souvlaki consisted only of meat, pieces of tomato, oregano, ground red pepper, onion and optionally red sauce. Later, tzatziki was added to the pita.
“Souvlatzides” (souvlaki makers) started adding fries in the early 90s, but the trend reached it’s peak a few years back when Greeks wanted to get more for less money. However, there’s still controversy whether tzatziki or fries should be added in the souvlaki to the point that the “souvlaki purists” consider it a blasphemy.
The famous tzatziki
The immigrants brought with them a few products unfamiliar to the Greeks and worth adopting. Yaourti, ‘yoghurt’, was one. This is really a group of foods which earlier Greeks had already experimented with. Galen, long ago, mentioned a soured cream product that he called oxygala, ‘acid milk’. The name must have remained familiar in some form, because the same name reappears in modern Greek in the form xinogalo, now regarded as a synonym of aïrani or Turkish ayran. These are the modern names of a refreshing yoghurt drink, diluted and slightly salty.
Tzatziki is another yoghurt preparation, thicker, mixed with cucumber, strained of all its water, garlic, olive oil and wine vinegar often flavoured with herbs (usually dill), served among meze as a dip or as a sauce in the pita wrap of souvlaki. The thinner version of tzatziki is now known among the Greeks of Cyprus as talatouri. In the Balkans, tarator can be as thick as tzatziki.
The Greek patent of the pita
During the Italian occupation, the Italians demanded and showed the Greek bakers to prepare the Italian galetta for them. It was an easy solution to feed the army with long-lasting baked goods.
These Greek bakers were also influenced by their experience in a type of bread from Asia Minor that became the forerunner of pita and led to the flavor we are familiar with today.
Hadzi’s bakery, along with Lambrakis’ bakery, in Nikaia, were the first bakeries worldwide to produce the pita for Athens souvlaki. A more mass production business started in 1952 by the Papadopoulos brothers in a wood-fired oven. At that time they could bake between 200 to 300 pitas per hour!
What’s the difference with gyro?
Gyros consists of many layers of meat one on top of the other, seasoned with salt and different spices and then grilled slowly on a vertical rotisserie. To serve it, it is sliced very thinly with a special knife.
It was based on the Ottoman doner and here it became Gyros due to the fact that the verb “gyrnao” means “to spin”, in Greek. When Greek refugees brought the recipe here, it was made out of a mixture of minced lamb and beef till the 70s, when its production stopped due to hygiene reasons.
Following to that, only pork or chicken is used in the production of gyro up to this day. Few places now make their own homemade gyro as regulations are very strict for its production. In the beginning, Gyros was turned manually. When it traveled with the Greek immigrants to the US, automated rotisseries were created and established everywhere.
Where to find the best souvlaki in Athens
In the oldest souvlaki joint of Athens you don’t just enjoy a souvlaki but a piece of history! Misak’s grandfather, Armenian by origin, set up his shop in 1924 in Nikaia where crowds flocked for his incredible kebabs. He brought with him the secret kebab recipe, which he later left to his son Setrak, who in turn passed it on to his own children. His kebab is what we call “homemade”, they choose the meat themselves, ferment it with pure ingredients and spices and grill it on charcoal.
P.Rali 168, Nikaia
Generations of Athenians have been raised with his souvlaki. Of course we are referring to “Lefteris o Politis, one of the very best souvlaki in Athens. It all began when the father, Stavros, started selling souvlaki on a sort of a food cart—using a mobile grill to cook it as he walked through Athens. He moved to the shop in 1951, naming it after his son, Lefteris, and Lefteris’ son Tasos now runs it. They prepare everything from scratch, from their fluffy pita bread to their mouth-watering kebabs.
Romvis 18 / Satovriandou 20
Very limited options with simple ingredients of excellent quality. Out of their menu we recommend the soutzoukaki (long meatball) with sweet and spicy red sauce. The spot is unique – a former butcher shop – right next to the meat market that provides them with fresh meat every day.
One of the most traditional places to visit is Kostas souvlaki Athens. Since 1946 all cooking is done on a charcoal grill that’s lit early each morning. The choice here is between souvlaki kalamaki (skewered pork cubes) – made by hand and not ordered in bulk from a factory as so many others – or souvlaki bifteki (beef patties), made fresh every day or to order.
Our favorite – in a freshly baked, hearty pita – is the juicy bifteki, topped with tomato that is cut on the spot (not in advance so it does not lose its juices and flavors), sweet onions and fresh parsley – topped with a dollop of an original red sauce in a spicy or mild version to bring it all joyfully together.
Aghia Irini’s square 2
Achilleas is renowned for its delicious, juicy and spicy pork gyro( said to be the best gyros in Athens), made fresh every day in-house. It is served as a main dish with tomato and onion or wrapped in a fresh, unoiled pita with onion, parsley, tomato and homemade tzatziki. The gyro runs out by 21:00 at the latest every evening, so make sure you get there early. The eatery also makes classic Athens souvlaki – kalamaki using well-grilled pork skewers and pita.
Spintharou 18, Neos Kosmos
A place themed after the “King” Elvis is royalty when it comes to the cult atmosphere and rock music. Strategically located in two spots, Pagrati and Kerameikos, the nightlife hotspots for the locals. This Athens souvlaki joint is perfect for a late-night bite after midnight. In Elvis souvlaki, you can try out the pork skewers or the juicy pork belly with their crispy fries, pita or sourdough bread, and don’t forget, squeeze plenty of lemon on top to do it like the Greeks!
Plateon 29 (Kerameikos), Archimidous 1-5 (Pagkrati)
This is the most well-known spot for souvlaki if you’re vegan in Athens! They prepared the very first vegan souvlaki in Athens, with a handful of alternative gyro options (different types of marinated mushrooms with delicious sauces served with country-style fries) and one extra delicious option, the meat-free kebab made of lentils. According to some testimonials better than the real thing and definitely the best gyros in Athens for vegans!
Themistokleous 43 (Exarcheia) , Kalliga 6 (Gyzi)
Find us in our Vegan blogpost to explore more on vegan-friendly Athens!
The first gourmet souvlaki of Athens! A team of well-known chefs who got inspired from haute cuisine that pays attention to quality and raw materials. We loved it for the mutton souvlaki, but it also managed to win us over with their black pig sausage.
Pl. Agias Irinis 9
Only 20 minutes from Acropolis area, this family-run grill in Koukaki keeps everyone well fed and happy. Open daily from 1pm until 1am, ready to cater for hungry tourists and well informed Athenians, who also order food out for delivery by the grill’s fleet of scooters. Here the meat is succulent and served fresh every single day even if you order out. Without compromising quality, they still offer generous portions and keep affordable prices.
Olympiou 10, Koukaki
Their story started 33 years ago and their grill keeps burning every weekday since then! Giorgos and Manos never cease to amaze us with their authentic souvlaki and large portions. Their excellent choice of meat and handmade potato chips make them a unique place to get the ultimate Athens souvlaki experience.
Themistokleous 39, Exarcheia
Father and son came from the city of Patras to Athens and with them they brought another view of the souvlaki. Their souvlaki is so good that it’s better to eat it plain and their bifteki smells just like home! The rich aroma of parsley rests harmoniously on the wholemeal pitas, which have that little crunch that makes all the difference in the deliciousness. The chicken is also grilled in ribs, the homemade fries are cut by hand, the vegetarians have their own halloumi souvlaki with a homemade mustard.
Archelaou 16, Pagrati
Watch their delicious gyro being well – roasted in two huge rottiseries, one for pork and one for chicken, before they serve it to you in a fluffy pita! They only use fresh ingredients and have amazing service. Open until 4 am every day, this place is ideal if you have midnight munchies or if you drank a little bit more in the bars of Exarcheia…
Ippokratous 37, Exarcheia
One of the best kalamakia of Athens! You can choose either pork,chicken or mutton kalamaki served with freshly cut fries. If you want an alternative, you can have the lazy lady’s chicken, which is actually a whole chicken without any bones!
Leontiou 11, by the Onassis cultural center
The exuberant flavours of northern Greece in the classic hangout of Exarcheia and lately also in Alimos. In addition to the classic options, the menu includes Prespa black pig roast, Kerkini buffalo and beef liver.
Charilaou Trikoupi 23 (Exarcheia), Vouliagmenis Avenue 560 (Alimos)
In Street Souvlaki you can experience new flavors alongside their tasty classic Athens souvlaki! Seftalia from Cyprus, Kaserli or Soutzouki is promised to surprise you. Give Halloumi, mushroom or vegetable a chance if you’re looking for something lighter or prefer a vegetarian option. Want a different pita? They got you covered. Pitas here are made with wheat, whole grains, corn, and of course, they garnish their amazing fries with grated cheese!
Kolokotroni 30 (center), Sotiros Dios 37 ( Piraeus), Akti Miaouli 63 (Pasilimani)
All photo credit belongs to ©freepik.