Residents of the Tampa Bay region share much in common with those who live along the Mediterranean Sea: abundant sunshine, beautiful beaches and a penchant for enjoying fine food and wine at a leisurely pace. Fortunately, several Bay Area restaurants bring the best of Mediterranean flavors to our shores whether they come from Greece, Lebanon, Turkey or Italy. Fans of hummus, olives and pita rejoice because these five culinary destinations will transport you to worlds away, without requiring a trip across the Atlantic.
Gengiz Khan Turkish Grill
6102 S. MacDill Ave.
Tampa, FL 33611
While the name may sound intimidating, there’s a reason why Gengiz Khan won first place as the Best Mediterranean restaurant in 2010, according to a readers’ poll of the South/Central Tampa News and Tribune. Tucked in an unassuming shopping plaza, Gengiz serves delightfully fresh Turkish cuisine in a warm, family-friendly environment. Reasonable prices, a responsive staff and meticulous attention to quality ensure a smooth and satisfactory dining experience for everyone. The rolled cheese pie, calamari and country-style eggplant make excellent options to share as appetizers. Some of the restaurant’s most famous dishes include the shish kebabs and the grilled Adana, both available in lamb or chicken. Don’t forget to try the excellent doner, a sort of Turkish answer to the Greek gyro. Vegetarians won’t go hungry either with wonderful, authentic falafel, mucver (a baked zucchini cake) and grape leaf dishes available.
Acropolis Greek Taverna
1833 E. 7th Ave.
Tampa, FL 33605
With additional locations recently opened in Riverview, New Tampa and St. Petersburg, few wonder about the reasons for Acropolis’ success. Here, it becomes clear that in Greek culture, people know how to throw a party. Along with traditional Greek classics like gyros and saganaki, one can find refined dishes such as a charbroiled red snapper marinated in rosemary and garlic. Drinks come strong with two-for-one specials on sangria and margaritas around the clock. Every night, music from a bouzouki, a traditional Greek instrument, fills the two rooms of the restaurant as a belly dancer saunters between the tables. The servers even join in on the fun from time to time by forming a congo line, tossing napkins in the air and breaking plates on the floor. This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime (and hopefully more often) experience. Those who enjoy hookah can try several flavors outside the restaurant, which also affords an excellent view for “people watching” on 7th Avenue. Even if you live far from Ybor City, it’s worth a visit to the original location for the ornate decorations. The festive atmosphere and the quality of the food justifies the sometimes elevated prices.
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519 N. Franklin St.
Tampa, FL 33602
A newer addition to the downtown restaurant scene, Paninoteca serves up simple yet delicious and affordable Mediterranean fusion dishes. As made clear by the name, this place prides itself on pitas and panini, available in herb-roasted lamb, chicken with feta or fontina cheese and pesto aioli and smoked turkey with caramelized onions. A variety of small plates, similar to tapas, provide an extra incentive to share and discover new flavors such as the alcachofa artichoke salad or the labneh with roasted eggplant. On Sundays, enjoy two-for-one sangria with $15 pitchers, hookah and relaxing house music provided by DJ James Webb.
Channelside Bay Plaza
615 Channelside Drive
Tampa, FL 33602
A massive and also relatively new addition to the Mediterranean food repertoire in Tampa, Taverna Opa fosters an upbeat, trendy version of classic Greek cuisine. Surprisingly similar to Acropolis (some may wonder if Opa drew its inspiration from the former), this restaurant showcases the absurd aspects of Greek culture with belly dancers, broken plates and airborne napkins. The modern decor, a live DJ and a view of the water will assuage anyone longing for the feel of a sun-drenched European terrace. An elaborate wine list includes Italian, Californian, French, Chilean and of course, Greek varietals. Along with the traditional Greek meals, Opa showcases some out-of-the-box options such as pan-seared quail in red wine sauce, a Barbounia red mullet imported from Greece and lavraki, a charcoal-grilled white fish. While some items on the menu can seem pricey, the desserts remain quite affordable and include baklava, ekmek and a walnut cake topped with honey.
2832 S. MacDill Ave.
Tampa, FL 33629
Self-described as an “upscale yet comfortable and quaint setting,” Byblos offers Tampa an authentic interpretation of Lebanese food. Named after an ancient city once part of the Phoenician empire, some believe it is also the origin of the name for the Bible. History aside, this restaurant serves up excellent Mediterranean cuisine, albeit quite steep prices. Fortunately every dish comes in generous portions, served with hummus, pita, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh and other delightful sides. If feeling adventurous and hungry, try the Taste of Lebanon, a comprehensive tour of the country’s cuisine for two. More traditional options include the shish and chicken kabobs, the chicken and beef shawarma and the pangasius, a fish of the grouper family. For desert, the ismaliah comes highly recommended as a sort of shredded filo dough and ricotta cheese with syrup and pistachios. Don’t forget to check out the market next door for otherwise hard-to-find Lebanese and Mediterranean ingredients if you wish to recreate the magic at home.
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Aaron Phillips has experience in marketing and journalism. Recently back to his hometown, he’s excited to discover and share what Tampa has to offer. His work can be found at Examiner.com.