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Searching for Döner, Shawarma, and Gyro in D.C. — And Learning the Difference

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It's no longer all Greek to the informed reader

Shawarma from Lebanese Taverna
Shawarma from Lebanese Taverna
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It's easy to get confused about the differences between döner, shawarma, and gyro. The similarities between all these spit-roasted meats is no surprise, given the geographic proximity of Greece, Turkey, and the Middle East. Of course the origins of the concept are also contested, but most agree the gyro is a descendant of the Turkish döner.

Most differences between a döner and a shawarma come down to semantics. Döner is the Turkish name for the dish that is also popular in Germany and Austria, while shawarma (what the dish is called in much of the Middle East) comes from the Turkish word cevirme, which means "to rotate". Some restaurants also may use the names to differentiate the way the meat is served, whether that's on a pita, skewer, or salad.

Just like any variations on a dish, the primary differences come down to seasonings, toppings, and meat choices that are common in the associated region's cuisine.

A shawarma, typically found in restaurants specializing in Middle Eastern cuisine, is typically made with slices of lamb (though beef and chicken are now common). Sumac, allspice, bay leaves, cinnamon, and cardamom are typically used in marinades. The slices are then stacked in a tower, which is shaved off and browned before serving.

Shawarma from Shawafel has become a popular ballpark snack. [Photo: Facebook]

Shawarma from Shawafel has become a popular ballpark snack. [Photo: Facebook]

Toppings can include garlic sauce, tahini, parsley, mint, tabbouleh, hummus, and pickled vegetables. While beef and lamb are traditionally used for shawarma, chicken has become another popular option. Find shawarma at Lebanese ButcherMax's Kosher CafeLebanese Taverna, and Shawafel. For those who want to investigate if döner really are the same thing, head to Döner Bistro.

Meat from Doner Bistro [Photo: Facebook]

Meat from Doner Bistro [Photo: Facebook]

The meat in a Greek-style gyro is little different from the shawarma, aside from being seasoned with oregano, as well as the common usage of pork, in addition to lamb and beef. From there, the meat is shaved off and browned, where most restaurants top it with a dollop of tzatziki, tomatoes, and lettuce. The gyro at Yamas Mediterranean Grill is done in the Greek style and French fries are often added. Find these at Mike Isabella's Kapnos and G, too (his new Kapnos at the Park at Nats Stadium is completely focused on Gyros).

A lamb gyro from Yamas [Photo: Facebook]

A lamb gyro from Yamas [Photo: Facebook]

The Greek gyros that most people are familiar with are in the form of the meat cones produced by Kronos, considered by many Greeks to be American-style. Kronos processes beef and lamb with oregano and other seasonings into a chunky paste that is formed into the familiar tower of meat. Looking for an American-style gyro without the Kronos cone? Then head to Greek Deli.

Try them all: This is not a comprehensive list, but here are some Eater picks for each category around town:

Shawarma:
Lebanese Butcher (Falls Church)
Max’s Kosher Cafe (Wheaton)
Lebanese Taverna (multiple locations)
Shawafel (Atlas District, Nats Stadium)

Döner:
Döner Bistro (Adams Morgan, Leesburg)

Gyro:
Yamas Mediterranean Grill (Adams Morgan, Bethesda)
Kapnos/G (U Street, Nats Stadium)
Greek Deli (Downtown)
Plaka Grill (Vienna, Falls Church)

Have another favorite source for gyro, shawarma or döner? Share in the comments.

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