Quick social media poll: when you’re ordering the classic, spit-roasted Greek sandwich, do you ask for a GEE-ro, a YEE-ro, or a JIE-ro? Something tells me we’ll get a pretty even split on this one. And while we might disagree on how it should be pronounced, I think most of us (including this vegan) can agree that the gyro is a beloved and iconic dish. Here’s how the classic Greek street food got its start.
Food in this part of the world tends to travel pretty quickly: one of the earliest known forms of gyros was the Turkish doner kebab, which dates back to the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. The doner kebab was made with lamb meat that was stacked on a vertical spit and then roasted slowly over an open flame. The meat was then sliced off and served in a wrap or pita bread. The dish became popular among the working-class people of Istanbul, who needed a quick and affordable meal that was also filling and flavorful.
In Greece, the dish is believed to have been introduced by immigrants from the Middle East, who brought with them the concept of cooking meat on a vertical rotisserie. In the early 20th century, a modified version of the doner kebab was introduced in Greece, using pork or chicken instead of lamb and served with tzatziki sauce and tomatoes. The dish quickly became popular, and by the 1950s, it was a common street food in Athens and other cities.
Flash forward to now, when the vertical spit is as ubiquitous across Athens as postcards of the Parthenon. Interestingly, this style of cooking has made its way to other cultures as well: doner kebabs are the street food of choice in Germany, and – as I found out during my time in Mexico City – spit-roasted pork is the key ingredient to the city’s beloved tacos al pastor (the Mexican trompo being the “spitting image” of the Turkish shawarma).
What’s in a Name?
The word “gyros” comes from the Greek word γύρος, which means “turn” or “revolution.” The name refers to the way the meat is cooked on a vertical rotisserie that rotates slowly, allowing the heat to cook the meat evenly on all sides. The Greek version of gyros is typically made with pork or chicken, marinated in a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and various spices. The meat is then stacked on the spit and roasted over an open flame until it is tender and juicy.
By the way, since the “g” is not typically pronounced in Greek, “YEE-ro” would be the closest to the original Greek pronunciation (roll that r for authenticity bonus points!). But I promise I’m not here to play English teacher and won’t be deducting any points for alternate pronunciations of this tasty dish.
Gyros in the U.S.
In the United States, gyros were first introduced in the 1960s, primarily in Greek-owned diners and restaurants (we had several near me growing up, and they were always my go-to spot for a filling breakfast or lunch). The dish quickly became popular, and by the 1980s, it had become a common fast-food item. Today, gyros are served in a variety of settings, from casual food trucks to upscale restaurants.
And yes, vegan gyros do exist. Since I still crave this tasty dish from my childhood, I have been playing around with several recipes. For me, jackfruit, tofu, and chickpeas all make a great substitute for the gyro meat. This lets me satisfy my gyro cravings without any of the guilt (and way fewer calories!). Because no matter how you pronounce it, this iconic Greek street food tastes incredibly delicious.
Top 5 Gyros In Athens
Obviously, I don’t eat most typical gyros, but that won’t stop me from putting together a solid Top 5. These five Athens spots are places that locals raved about or places that I noticed had some crazy long lines (often both). Be sure to check out these five spots next time you have a gyro craving in Athens.
OK, I lied, I have had this gyro. That’s because it’s completely vegan! And trust me, while Vegan Beat cuts out the meat, they don’t cut out the flavor. This popular spot is conveniently located near the Acropolis (which I’m sure you’ll be going to) and makes for a perfect healthy meal after a long day of exploring some of Europe’s most famous historic sites.
Savvas is another gyro spot situated in the heart of Athens (near Syntagma Square). Savvas is renowned for its mouthwatering gyros. This long-standing eatery has a loyal following and is frequently recommended by locals. And for some of the best views of the Acropolis, grab a table on their rooftop. The views up here took my breath away, even if I wasn’t able to sample their gyro.
Don’t confuse this place with the similarly named restaurant in Monastiraki. O Thanasis in Thisseio is known for its delectable gyros, served with freshly baked pita bread and a variety of toppings. Ever had a taco on a freshly made tortilla? Game changer, right? Ditto for a gyro on freshly baked pita bread. This is a spot that gyro lovers should not miss.
Located near Monastiraki Square, Bairaktaris is a traditional taverna known for its delicious souvlaki and gyros. It has a cozy atmosphere and is a favorite among locals and tourists alike. This is a great place to enjoy authentic Greek cuisine in a low-key setting. For me, it was a great place to meet some locals and get some amazing tips for exploring Athens!
Situated close to Syntagma Square, Kostas is a small and unassuming street food stall that has gained a cult following. Their gyros are praised for their high-quality ingredients and excellent taste.
Hard to Pick Just Five…
With so many great gyros in this town, it’s hard to settle on just five, but rules are rules. Honestly – gyros being street food – you’d do well to grab just about any of the offerings you see in the stalls lining Athens’ narrow lanes. And if you’re craving a delicious vegan gyro here in the States, you know I’ve got you covered.
If you enjoyed this article or have suggestions on how we can improve it, please leave us a comment below. Also, make sure to check out other articles I’ve created or stories I’ve written about food culture – here.