Tarpon Springs - Hellas
The Spousal Unit and I were pondering what to do with a couple of days off. I was reading through the Florida Board and ran across a thread in which someone was absolutely excoriating Tarpon Springs and it occurred to me that we hadn't been there in several years. We got in the car and off we went.
We had a leisurely drive up Hwy 19 from our home not far from the Skyway Bridge. You can try to get there faster, but the effort will stress you out without expediting the pilgrimage much, so why bother? For us, if we are going to go north of Central Avenue we might as well be traversing the continent, or at least the Bay, so there was a lot to see on the way that we haven't laid eyes on in quite some time.
Rusty Bellies, Hellas and Mykonos were mentioned in the thread as potential restaurant destinations. The SU said that we had considered both Hellas and Mykonos on our previous outing but that we had eaten at Mykonos. It was about 5 years ago, so I'll take his word for it. The only thing I really remember is that it was rip-roaring hot, and a whole lot less crowded.
We found street parking a block off of the waterfront way down at the end and walked back up toward the corner where there was some kind of artsy-craftsy exhibit going on. We parked directly in front of tourists from Maine and two back from others from Ontario. We were surprised by the crowd in the street along the sponge docks. If tourism is down, someone forgot to tell these people.
We passed by Rusty Bellies first so we inspected the menu. It looked fine but in the end we decided that we could get the same seafood offerings close to home. I mean, why bother to drive to Tarpon if you aren't going to eat Greek food?
We continued up the street until we got to Hellas where an employee on the sidewalk pressed a menu on us. The dining rooms, which open to the street, were gob-smacked. Crowds in tourist traps may or may not be telling but the crowd coupled with the pickled octopus on the appetizer menu sucked us in.
We were seated fairly quickly at a table not far off of the sidewalk. The day was clear and fine - warm enough to be pleasant and breezy enough to keep the sun from being bothersome.
The dining room is replete with any number of clichés of Greek decor and some tacky elements that seem to be original. The acoustic ceiling tiles are painted to emulate a partly cloudy sky on a sunny day. There is a blue border around the perimeter of the room in a Greek key design. There is the requisite grape vine motif. Classic columns - you name it, but a clean and refreshing blue and white color scheme prevails.
Our server was a trim and charming young man who was friendly and efficient.
We ordered iced tea to drink and my glass was replenished throughout the meal as needed without asking. I was glad of it because I tend to drink a lot with my meal and forgot to tell the waiter when we ordered. They obviously know how to brew tea at Hellas; it's something that should be a given but so any places serve either tea-tinted brown water or tea with a tang that indicates that the brewing vessel is not cleaned regularly or thoroughly. At Hellas, the tea was cold, fresh and properly strong.
Lured by the opportunity to sample several items (including the pickled octopus), we ordered the appetizer cold plate. The SU spied a dinner platter featuring fried smelts and since we had never eaten them, of course we ordered that, too. We thought that we were ordering lightly and we'd graze on later, but we were wrong.
The “Assorted Cold Plate” featured scoops of skordalia (described as “potatoed garlic spread”), taramosalata (a fish roe spread), and tzatziki, a few olives and pickled peppers and two wedges of cheese. In addition to the pickled octopus (a good 4 oz or so) was an equal portion of shrimp prepared in the same ceviche-like manner. The $15.95 cold platter was accompanied by decent bread, and when we ran out we got more to finish up these tasty treats.
There were also sardines on the menu and we ordered them not quite knowing what we'd get. For $2.50, it wasn't much of a gamble. We got five sardine filets of the salt-cured variety. The pungent little filets were a nice counterpoint to the tzatziki sauce with bread.
The smelts dinner platter came heaped with the little fried fishes and sides of rice, roasted potato and English peas in some kind of sauce. I thought that the rice was indifferent and I don't care for peas, but the SU enjoyed the peas; we were unable to determine the subtle spicing of their sauce. For $10.95 this was an outstanding value. The portion of smelts was very generous. The little fishes were lightly breaded and perfectly fried. They were light and crispy and not at all greasy. We compared them to the deep fried little fishes that we had eaten in Spain. But in Spain, the little fishes would have been served to us WITH heads. Each smelt is just a couple of inches long, gutted and headless but with bones that fry up to edible consistency.
We left about $38 bucks lighter but stuffed to the gills and pleased to no end. The only thing I might have wanted was to have room for dessert – the stuff in the bakery looked great. We wandered up Dodecanese browsing in the shops and talking about the meal we had just eaten.
It didn't take us long to realize why we haven't been back to Tarpon Springs for so long. Once you've been to the sponge docks and the aquarium if you aren't going out on one of the tourist boat rides there isn't much to see or do. The shops comprise about a hundred variations on the same theme of tourist gee-gaws and bad resort wear. You can tell who has been there too long or who comes back every year because they are dressed in the clothes being sold in those stores.
Touristy atmosphere not withstanding, the day was just seductively pleasant. The sun was dancing off the water. The crowd was full of the happy sounds of complacent tourists, laughing seagulls and bad cover bands.
The food was good, the service was good and the atmosphere was just exactly consistent with what I would expect in that setting. What’s not to love?
I'm glad to hear that you had a good experience at Hellas. We went there a few years ago and loved it. We told the waiter that we didn't know anything about Greek food and he said "Let me take care of you". We put ourselves in his hands and had the most delicious food and a great experience interacting with our server.
Wow, you guys were adventurous! We have eaten there many times and have never been disappointed. The atmosphere is great, especially if you sit in the little courtyard at the front. I love the saganaki and always accompany it with a shot of Metaxa. The Pastitsio is really good, as is the generous helping of Greek salad. Don't miss the bakery on the way out...