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Souvlakia in Athens

Souvlaki: The Hamburger of Greece

Matt Barrett eating souvlaki in AthensSouvlakis are the hamburgers of Greece. At least they were until hamburgers arrived and now hamburgers are the hamburgers of Greece. Souvlaki shops became more scarce and fast-food places more plentiful. Then came the recession and suddenly souvlakia made a comeback and many tavernas and restaurants and psistarias (grill houses) became souvlaki shops and the family night out once again became a plate full of souvlakia, a Greek salad, fried potatoes and sadziki and a few beers or some wine. To give you an idea of the power of souvlaki, Greece is the only country in the world where MacDonalds loses money, caught between the Goody's hamburger chain and the resurrection of the souvlaki. For those anti-globalizationists who don't want to march or demonstrate you can strike a blow for the little guy by walking past the familiar sign for a Big-Mac and straight to the little shop that sells souvlakia. Souvlakia is the food of the revolution against oppression. And they are also the most filling meal you will ever have for under 3 euros. And just think... when I was a kid they cost 3 drachma! That is ten cents. I used to eat three of them.

What is a Souvlaki?

Athens Food: SouvlakiSouvlaki is a general term but usually refers to meat of some sort, beef, lamb, pork or 'unknown' that is on a giant vertical rotisserie and is known as gyro pronounced in the USA as gyro and in Greek as yee-row. The souvlaki 'cook' slices off the meat as it becomes done and puts it on a round pita bread with lettuce, tomato, onions, and sadziki, a cucumber-yogurt-garlic sauce that in my opinion is what makes souvlakis great. In some souvlaki shops the meat is skewered and sometimes you can get ground beef, which is generally known as beefteki. In some upscale souvlaki shops you can get chicken souvlakis and even swordfish souvlakis (Very rare. I think there is a place next to MacDonalds at Syntagma where I saw it). Souvlaki comes in wax paper which keeps it all together and you eat it like you are peeling a banana. It can be messy but who cares?

Athens food, Souvlaki MonastirakiWhen I was a kid I could eat three or four of them easily but now I have trouble eating one. But that is only because the only time I would eat in a souvlaki shop would be in the day because dinners are eaten in tavernas as a form of entertainment as well as sustainance and who wants to eat a big greasy sandwhich when it is 95 degrees out? Well, many people do and they are still quite popular day or night. In fact when I tell my old friends who used to live in Greece I am going there, they always ask me to bring them back a souvlaki. One American kid from the US Airbase filled a suitcase with souvlakis when he left Greece after his father's tour of duty was over. So you see the power of the Souvlaki is strong and unless you are the most militant vegetarean you should not leave Greece without trying one. You can get them without meat too as well as with chicken or even fried potatoes. But anyone my age frowns upon potatoes in souvlaki even though it is normal for young people.

Athens street Food: SouvlakiThe great thing about souvlakis is that they are cheap and if your kids are hungry you can send them to the souvlaki shop for dinner just as my parents did with me and my sister and brothers fifty years ago. Your kids can go and order for themselves and it will be a sort of adventure and fill them with confidence in their ability to survive in a foreign culture and you will be free to go out to a nice taverna while they stay in the hotel and play with their video games and hand-held devices. Besides the souvlaki in the pita you can find street vendors selling souvlaki kalamaki which is skewered meat with a regular piece of bread instead of pita and no onions, tomatoes or sadziki.

As was the general consensus 25 years ago, the best place for a souvlaki is.....
well, just read on.

A Tale of 2 Souvlakis

Athens Food: SouvlakiWhere Metropoleos street meets Monistiraki square are several souvlaki shops, next to and facing each other, each one just as good as the other. But you must be careful here. If you sit down and order a 'souvlaki', the waiter will return with an enormous plate filled with salad, chopped pita-bread and a skewer or two of meat. Of course this is not the souvlaki you know and were expecting. I remember seeing a family of tourists who moments before had been bursting with excitement over the anticipated arrival of their first souvlaki in Greece, then stare in astonished disbelief at the five plates put before them. Sadly they ate them, thinking they had made some kind of tragic mistake when they ordered. They had not made a mistake. While everyone in the world knows what a souvlaki is, these restaurants have given the word a new meaning. The reason is simple. The cost of a sandwich versus the cost of a whole meal.

When they tried the stunt on us my friend Dorian confronted the waiter.
"What the hell is this?" He asked.
"It's a souvlaki", said the waiter. "It's what you ordered".
"I didn't order this." said my friend.
"Sure you did. I took the order myself. See it's written right here." (He showed us an illegible scrawl on a piece of paper.)
"If this is a souvlaki, then what do you call the skewer of meat with tomatoes, onions and sadziki wrapped in pita-bread?" Dorian asked.
"That's the "
Special Sandwich ", smiled the waiter with an embarrassed look on his face that told us that he knew he had been trapped by a couple of experts.
"Take these away and bring us two souvlakis. The kind they sell as souvlakis everywhere in the world except here." Said Dorian.
The waiter returned smiling with our souvlakis. 

So when you go to one of these places be sure to tell them Souvlaki Sandwich . It should look like the thing I am eating in the picture at the top. This article will cost the Greek economy billions of drachma in lost souvlaki revenue but at least souvlaki lovers of the world will return home fulfilled. If it is in a plate, laying flat, with more then one skewer of meat, then send it back. (unless you want the platter, which actually is pretty good ).

I have gotten more e-mails about the above story than just about anything in the guide. One person even threatened me if I did not remove it. I didn't remove it and I am still here. But in Greece where they take food serious you have to be careful with what you say about souvlaki.

The Best Souvlaki Shop in Athens

Olymbos SouvlakiAsk any taxi driver which is the best souvlaki shop and they will tell you it is Thanasis across the street. Is it the best? Who knows? Others say Kostas on Adrianou is the best and others will say, no Kostas on Platia Ag Katerini is the best and as proof there is always a line of Greeks. Some people like To Theiokon by the vegetables section in the Market. The view of many Souvlaki lovers is that this is just as good or better than anything you will find in Monastiraki and the service is quicker and the beer is colder and it is a lot less crowded. Probably the best is in some neighborhood tourists never visit. My friend Corinne who has lived in Athens since 1970 says "I just love souvlaki and one of the best places in Athens is the Souvlaki Bar just off Ermou near Thission. Their souvlaki shots (mini pita wrapped souvlaki in shot glasses) with an array of different sauces are great!" If you want my opinion, well, the best souvlaki I have had was at Olymbos in Kypseli, on the corner of Odos Kypseli and Odos Zakynthos. Why was it so good? Well first of all it was the first souvlaki I had eaten in a year. The second reason is that the shop is owned by the butcher shop next door which has a reputation as one of the best in Athens, and the key to good souvlakia is obviously the meat. The third reason is that it is the closest souvlaki shop to my apartment so I want it to be the best. If you take the 2 or 4 trolley from the National Gardens (or the National Museum if you are there) to Kypseli and get off at the stop called Zakynthou (the 3rd stop once you turn up to Kypseli) and walk about 15 steps and you will see it. To get home cross the street and take the bus back. Or walk a couple blocks to Fokionos Negri where there are several more souvlaki shops that few tourists every go to.

Souvlakia in AthensThe most popular Souvlaki shops are those at the end of Metropolis street right at Monastiraki square. The one on the corner is owned by the same guy who owns the famous old Taverna Sigalas, right next door. His name is Spiro and his picture is everywhere, happily posing with famous people, Greeks and international. In fact it is my personal goal to have my picture up there with Spiro one day since it is sort of Greece's answer to Gruman's Chinese Theater. So if you want to do a little active campaigning for me feel free to ask Spiro or the waiter when will he have Matt Barrett in one of his pictures. Generally you have to be a little more famous than I am but with the help of some of my readers maybe we can speed up the timetable and insure my immortality. In the meantime I plan to do a lot more research on souvlakia and hopefully will be able to put together my own top 10 or even top 20 souvlaki shops in Greece if I can find someone with a strong enough stomach to accompany me on this marathon. But for now you don't need a souvlaki expert to tell you if a souvlaki is any good. Just go to your nearest souvlaki shop and order one and if you thought it was the best you have ever eaten then e-mail me.

If you still have any questions see The Alex Charalabidis Guide to Souvlaki and Dimitra's Guide to Souvlaki

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