You come upon it unexpectedly as you near the point where Eighth Avenue dead-ends into the Gowanus Expressway, a rococo cream-colored cottage that looks like it might be inhabited by trolls. Inside, the number of decorative motifs is so numerous, it could give an architect indigestion: tulip chandeliers, coffered ceilings, feathered friezes, black-marble fireplace, and round pillars embedded with pastel tiles and jagged strips of mirror. A cage filled with yellow canaries stands by the open door; as you enter, the birds chirp a frantic greeting. My crew and I pick the second tier of seating, which is lined with antique photos. The sequence begins with a young boy sheepishly posed in a skirted peasant costume, and concludes with some hippies sitting in front of an ancient monument. When the gray-haired proprietor sees us admiring the pictures, he approaches and brags, “Do you like those photographs? I’m in every one!”
Spartan Souvlaki isn’t exactly a Greek diner, though it trades in hamburgers, feta-planked salads, and the delicate shish kebabs known as souvlaki. But the canned soups, toasted cheese sandwiches, and mile-high cream pies are missing, so it’s more like a Greek diner in Greece. Rather than referencing the militaristic city-state that defeated Athens long ago, the café name-checks modern Sparta, a beautiful town on the Peloponnesian peninsula where sausage is a specialty. This is not the slender pork-lamb loukanika normally found in Greek restaurants, but a juicy, large-circumference, all-pork weenie that tastes of orange rind and wine and owes much to the ballpark frank. Order the sausage as an appetizer ($5.50), in a pita ($5.35), or on a hulking platter ($19.95) that also includes two souvlaki sticks, salad, copious gyro slicings, and horta (stewed dandelion greens).
Meat, not fish, is the focus of Spartan Souvlaki. The only exception is a de rigueur saucer of charred octopus dressed with red-wine vinaigrette—not the best in town, but it’s a damn good deal (htapodi, $6.95). Contrary to the restaurant’s name, the souvlaki seems pro forma, pork or chicken tidbits that barely distract you from the sumptuous sides of the platter it comes on. But the gyro is killer. Available in multiple formats, the mystery meat is best enjoyed in the version found among the “Spartan Specials,” where $6.15 gets you a sandwich so big, the pocketless pita can’t contain it. Bulging out the top are red ripe tomatoes (the place prides itself on perfect tomatoes), curling strips of oozing meat, purple onions, romaine, and a tzatziki made with so much raw garlic you can smell it as the waiter foots it across the room. Unlike regular diner fries, Spartan Soulvaki’s are superb.
The menu boasts, “Everything made to order,” and apart from a few things like the pitas, the boast proves accurate. A case in point are the pies. Order spanakopita most places, and you get a square portion of a giant phyllo pie that’s been sitting on the counter for hours, if not days. Shaped like turnovers, the pies at Spartan Souvlaki are stuffed, wrapped, and popped in the oven when you order them, so be forewarned you’ll have to wait 20 minutes. Though the spinach version is lush and tasty, the cheese pie ($4) blows it out of the water—in this case, the Ionian Sea.