It may have been an effort to compensate, but in mid-March, the desultory Valentine's Day decorations were still hanging up in what has to be in the running for the least romantic restaurant in Astoria. Ditmars Gyro Place has all the ambiance of a locker room: the bathroom-tile walls, the bright fluorescent lighting, the muscular dudes loitering around with a vaguely menacing attitude. Even the cards with big numbers printed on them that were stuck in wire stands on each table suggested the impersonality of the gym. (The purpose of this numbering system remained entirely opaque, but maybe it helped out the waiter, who seemed responsible for all the dozen or so tables.)
But despite the antiseptic air, the place remained busy for the duration of our visit, after eight on a Sunday evening when most everywhere else in the neighborhood is dead. So they must be doing something right. And it's not like they are without competition; gyro and souvlaki places are everywhere. But in some ways, this is almost a guarantor of quality: To survive amid all the other Greek takeout places, a restaurant has to do at least a reasonably good job, and Ditmars Gyro Place clears that hurdle by a far stretch.
Gyro sandwiches are sort of Astoria's equivalent of the Philly cheesesteak. You can get gyros in just about any neighborhood, but outside of Astoria, they tend to suck, and for the same reasons cheesesteaks suck anywhere outside of the greater Philadelphia area. The bread has to be just right -- Amoroso rolls in the case of steaks; the thick, fluffy pocketless pitas for gyros -- and the meat needs to be sliced and prepared properly. It's not rocket science, but only in neighborhoods where a lot of pride is taken in the local staple will restaurateurs bother to make the cherished cuisine correctly.
Ditmars Gyro Place definitely did things right. As far as rotating meats go, they were taking no chances, with three different kinds spinning on their spits. The cubes of chicken in the souvlaki sandwich were moist without being chewy, and one could bite through them without having to wrestle with the pita and make a mess of things. The combination gyro, ordered at the suggestion of the waiter when we couldn't decide between lamb and beef, was made moist not by tzatziki but by slow, careful roasting of the meat. And to top it all off, $3 bottles of Mythos, a bargain for the not-bad Greek lager.
We know we have many gyros to come, and we expect them to all be pretty reliably satisfying. The similarity may tempt us into worrying about peripheral things -- the atmosphere, the demeanor of the cooks, whether our pronunciation of gyro gets corrected. But our experience at Ditmars Gyro Place should serve to remind us that gyros sell themselves. We need not worry about the window dressing too much with these places; instead we should think only of the meat and the pita, and enjoy the small miracle of the combination of the two.
Update (8/10/08): This restaurant may have improbably renamed itself "Aphrodite Cafe."
Price: Like other gyro places. Cheap.
Will we go again? Perhaps, but we have 487 other gyro joints to work our way through, so it'll be a while.