While Athens’ more upscale neighborhoods have recently rediscovered the gastronomic joys – and, let’s face it, the economic sense – of eating souvlaki, this classic dish has never gone out of fashion in Athens’ downtown. The city’s longtime souvlaki venues may have changed little in the last 50 years, but there is something particularly satisfying about their old-fashioned, no-frills approach. With their clientele of seasoned fanatics, the best of the bunch offer a lesson in what it truly means to eat like an Athenian. (Keep in mind that the menus at these old-school souvlaki places have remained virtually unchanged for decades, meaning that there is no chicken served, only the traditional pork or “kebab” – usually made with a mixture of minced veal, lamb and sometimes pork – in variations described in our Athenian souvlaki primer.)
Kostas, an unassuming souvlaki joint hidden behind an enormous, desolate-looking empty building that until 2007 housed the Ministry of Education, is our personal favorite. As the enormous stick-on letters on the glass front of the restaurant indicate, the venue has been in business since 1950. Although the place moved at some point from its original location on Adrianou Street in Plaka to Pentelis Street, two blocks from Syntagma Square, it still serves exactly the same things it always has.
The man who runs the venue is the grandson of the original Kostas. To say that Kostas Junior’s joint is slightly on the eccentric side would be a gross understatement. First of all, this is likely the cleanest place at which you can eat souvlaki in Athens – or indeed the universe. The white tiled floors gleam with cleanliness at all times, while Kostas grills souvlaki on the tiniest grill ever used in a professional restaurant, dressed in an outfit of white overalls that makes him look like a surgeon; he even uses a pair of silver tongs to take your money and give your change back. Kostas and Popi, his loyal companion, like to keep things orderly, tidy and stress-free, as attested by an old-fashioned framed picture of a peacock crowned with the slogan: “Our souvlaki is nice… but no stress.” This isn’t easy, considering the throngs of usually male, middle-aged customers who keep showing up, ordering beer and demanding more of the good stuff.
What makes Kostas’s souvlaki special is its lightness. The meat is of exceptional quality and is juicy without being greasy; this means that, unlike at most other souvlaki joints, here you can eat more than one. The pita bread, which is fat-free, is stuffed with either souvlaki or a kebab and then topped with thinly sliced pieces of onion, full-fat strained yogurt, tomato and plenty of parsley. The result is as light and fresh as it gets. Be warned: if they are too busy (usually between 2-3 p.m.) they will simply tell you that they can’t serve you or that they have run out of food. It is therefore best to go to Kostas around 11:30 or noon, or to arrive early and reserve a souvlaki for later.
To make things confusing, there is another, unrelated yet equally celebrated, Kostas in downtown Athens, in the very fashionable Agias Irinis Square, which buzzes with new bars and cafes. The owner inherited the place from his father, who opened shop in the exact same spot in 1946. This Kostas, who is now in his sixties, also likes to enjoy a stress-free life (“Do not pressure me,” says a sign on the wall, “because I am at an age where I am at risk of a stroke.”) Like the other Kostas, this one also grills to his own beat, preparing his souvlaki on a hot griddle rather than on the customary charcoal fire – a fact that has enraged many a purist over the years. Regardless, the tiny place, no wider than a hallway, always has a line out the door, with customers often waiting 40 minutes for souvlaki, while Kostas – who is sprightly beyond his years – keeps patiently cooking away. The meat (pork or kebab) is wrapped in pita with onion, parsley, tomato, French fries, yogurt and the venue’s famous peppery red sauce. The result is spicy, juicy and exceptionally filling.
A bit further downtown, not far from Omonia and near the slightly run-down but still uniquely Athenian Kanigos Square, Livadia is the only venue that remains of what was once a cluster of old-fashioned souvlaki shops specializing in kalamaki, or chunks of pork on a wooden skewer. The place is named after the city in mainland Greece (located 130 km from Athens) that’s considered the home of kalamaki – indeed, travelers often make a special stop there to taste the dish.
In business since 1963, Livadia is located on a pedestrianized street, right next to Mimis, a shop famous for its imitation designer sunglasses. Aside from its enormous grill, Livadia looks rather unremarkable, but it’s the kind of place where everyone – from workers and pensioners to immigrants and drifters – gets their kalamaki fix. There are a few tables outside but, more often than not, customers eat standing up. The grill churns out hundreds of skewers of kalamaki every day, but the earlier you go, the better they taste. (Livadia opens at 8 a.m., so if you can handle grilled skewers of pork for breakfast, this is your place.) Aside from the exceptional quality of the meat, what really distinguishes Livadia’s kalamaki is the right balance between meat and fat, which can be hard to find. As tradition dictates, the grilled meat here is served unadorned, with bread and not pita. This, after all, is downtown Athens, where, when it comes to souvlaki, tradition still rules.