Have you ever fallen in love with a town just because the dining experience totally amazed you? It just happened to me in Tarpon Springs, Florida, after my memorable lunch at Hellas Greek Restaurant & Bakery.
My daughter Peyton, friend Vada, and I came to Tarpon Springs to eat some authentic Greek cuisine in the gorgeous seaside town made famous by the natural sponge market. I had read that Tarpon contains the largest percentage of Greek Americans in the U.S. so I had pretty high expectations. We were seated at a nice table where we could see everything going on in the restaurant.
Our waiter was a most gregarious young man and he explained a bit of the menu to us. We ordered the spreads sampler as an appetizer and were later delivered a lovely plate featuring hummus, tzatziki, and feta spreads served with piping hot pita bread. The waiter also brought us fresh baked bread and butter. My thoughts were that the pita was the best I had ever had and the feta spread, out of this world! They were all yummy.
My very favorite Greek dish (boy it is hard to narrow down with this cuisine) is Moussaka, so I knew what I was going to order. It did not take much persuasion from my waiter to change my mind so I ended up ordering the huge combination platter that included Moussaka, along with Dolmades, Gyros, Pastitsio, and Tzatziki sauce. Just in case that was not enough, the platter was paired with Greek style potatoes, peas, and rice pilaf.
For those of you who are not familiar with Greek foods, here is a brief description of my platter:
- Pastitsio- Casserole of ziti, ground beef, Romano cheese, and a creamy sauce
- Moussaka- Casserole of beef, eggplant, potatoes and a cheese sauce
- Dolmades- Grape leaves stuffed with ground beef, spices, and rice
- Gyros- Pita bread, meat (lamb), onions, tomato & sauce
- Tzatziki sauce- A delicious sauce made from garlic, sour cream, and cucumbers
Our lunch was served and my daughter and I shared the enormous offering. She gobbled up the gyros and kalamata olives, but I chose the pastitsio. Though grape leaves are very popular and served many places I visit, I am not a fan of the flavor. I did loved the peas; they helped break up the richness of the casserole items. We ate until we could barely move, and there was still food left. The Greek salad my friend ordered looked wonderful as well. (I can make that at home, I chose to live it up!)
All the while we were eating, I was enjoying seeing the largest group of servers I had ever witnessed, all scurrying around and servicing customers. Sangria was being served to a lot of tables, as well as Saganaki, imported flaming cheese that was served to nearly every other table. The server, carrying the flaming dish, would lead a group of waiters to the table and the entire party would cheer “OPA!” in unison as the flames got higher. I loved it!
IMG_0526 (click the link to see the video of the flaming cheese)
The atmosphere at Hellas is a welcoming one; one where you feel appreciated, welcome, and part of a big family. Having owned restaurants in the past, seeing that many workers actually working and staying busy was a pleasant surprise. If I were guessing, I would say the enormous building could hold 300-350 diners at one time. The walls were painted with Greek sceneries and it was really beautiful to look at the color combinations.
At the end of our meal, we detoured through the bakery which is in its own building located next door to the restaurant. My eyes nearly popped out of my head! The bakery was swarming with customers, people standing in lines at the counters as well as seated patrons waiting for servers, some lined out the door. Coffee drinks and pastries were being served at record speeds and the bakery staff was hustling even more than the impressive ones in the restaurant. I made my way to the counter in what seemed like fifteen minutes deciding, finally compiled my order. I purchased a whole box of things to share with my husband and some neighbors,including baklava, flogeres, a slice of the Domino and Mickey pastas, and a pourakia. Two boxes and $40 later, I headed out the door.
As I was leaving, the general manager of the restaurant, the nicest man by the name of Emmanuel stopped us and took us aside to share the story of the Greek tradition for their special new years bread, called Vassilopita, or St. Basil’s bread, and how to serve it. He gave us a small loaf and we did just what he instructed for our dinner that evening. All in all, this restaurant experience made me a lover of Tarpon Springs and I cannot wait to go back. Though it is across the state of Florida from where I reside, it is not too far to go for a great meal like that. I hope you will try it some time.
The story of the new years bread, or Vassilopita: The senior member of the family shall cut the loaf in the shape of a cross, and the 12-3 o:clock portion is in remembrance for our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (nobody eats this piece). You will be left with 3 remaining pieces. Take the number of people you are sharing the bread with, and cut the bread to equal that many pieces. Each person is given a serving of bread. Inside each loaf of bread is a gold wrapped coin. The person that finds the coin is thought to have the sweetness of life, liberty, health, and happiness throughout the new year. If nobody finds the coin and it remains in the bigger piece (the house piece) everyone will receive the blessings (or at least that was my take on the instructions, correct me if I am wrong).
Check out my other posts around the Tarpon Springs area: