Hellas Restaurant: Greek Revival in Tarpon Springs
I have a confession to make. Half Greek and living in the Tampa Bay area for decades, I was confident I knew exactly what to expect when I headed to Tarpon Springs for an hour-long interview at Hellas Restaurant: Drive out to Tarpon, walk past kitschy gift shops and a few sponge boats, have a nice conversation with the general manager, get my Greek food fix, drive home.
I should have known better. Behind the soaps, sponges and sun-kissed vendors offering dolphin cruises is a seriously tight-knit and fun-loving community where the fabric has been woven together by generations. Meaning my quick trip turned into a full-day excursion that had me wondering why I don’t do this more often.
HOSPITALITY WITH HEART
There’s something to be said for history, whether of a place or between people. And Hellas happens to have both kinds. On the bustling main drag of Dodecanese Boulevard, the Karterouliotis family has been serving up traditional Greek fare for almost half a century. Current general manager Emmanuel “Manny” Psomas isn’t technically related, but is an “adopted son” whose passion for the business is apparent.
Coming from a big, fat Greek family myself, I’m used to hearty welcomes … and Manny did not disappoint. With soulful brown eyes behind his glasses and a swiftness in his step, he whisked me into the bakery for our interview.
“Coffee, cappuccino? Would you like a pastry?” That last bit was a rhetorical question (certainly), given the seemingly endless glass case of sweet confections and savory treats to choose from. I was paralyzed, struggling to zero in on exactly what to get.
I asked Manny for his favorite. He answered that it depends on his mood – and some days he’s in the mood for a cannoli. While it seemed a bit sacrilege to order an Italian specialty in a Greek bakery, I took his advice and was not disappointed.
Connected to the bakery, the restaurant was in full swing preparing for the day’s customers as we walked in to the sounds of traditional Greek music. We found a spot next to a fountain with a sponge diver’s mask – one of many reminders of the community’s roots – and over a blue, yellow and white tiled table, Manny talked about his 25-year history at Hellas.
Drawn by food quality and family ownership (similar to the prior 20 years he spent working at his parents’ restaurant), Manny started here as a server and has dedicated his career to keeping customers coming back … week after week, year after year. In his time, he has sold pastries, tended bar, washed dishes, and been a chef – a few of his recipes are still on the menu. Six of his siblings have worked here; today, three still do.
Garnering much recognition over the decades for consistent quality and an authentic experience, Hellas has been a go-to spot for locals and a word-of-mouth destination for worldwide visitors. And, that’s what means the most to the Hellas family.
“Love is the most important ingredient for being successful. If you have love for what you do, and a quality product, that maintains your consistency,” Manny passionately explained.
As I listened to Manny talk about the origin of Greek coffee, I explained that it reminded me of my yiayia (Greek for “grandmother”) and how she would boil coffee in a small pot over the stove and serve it with hard koulourakia cookies to whoever was laughing and telling stories around her kitchen table. It was at this moment that Manny excused himself, returning with a bag full of them wrapped up with ribbon. He also brought owner Nick Karterouliotis, who shares his food and service philosophy.
So close that they finish each other’s sentences, Manny and Nick both consider the restaurant and bakery their baby and foster a serious camaraderie among their staff. Surprisingly, most aren’t Greek, which means educating them with cultural product knowledge.
“At other restaurants, shrimp is shrimp and cheese is cheese, but here the style of food is a little more complex,” Manny explained. With a mantra of authenticity and excellence, they believe the experience continues to hold true because of the team and open-mindedness.
“We operate here how we were raised – with a strong work ethic and open ears to listen to each other. There are no egos. We’re all here to satisfy customers, keep improving and produce something otherwise lost,” Nick added.
Nick firmly believes it’s important to hold on to the past while understanding future needs to keep things relevant for today. “Listen to what people tell you. Understand them. Use that to make educated decisions and merge with your ideas for a positive outcome.” One way he accomplishes this is by making some pastries less heavy to adapt to a healthier lifestyle more conducive to how many want to eat today.
What started as his father’s bakery in Chicago – an early international distributor of pita bread – was eventually reborn to become one of the largest, full-service bakeries providing pastries to Greek festivals nationwide. While some of the baking is still done in the retail location, most has transitioned to the wholesale bakery not far away, where yiayia-approved spanakopita and tiropita (spinach and cheese pies), baklava and other desserts are made. Nick tells them that he can’t make pastries as well as they can, but he can get close, and is rewarded with festival thank you letters that read, “You’re the number one yiayia in town.” Let me tell you, when it comes to yiayias, that is a massive compliment.
“We are their servants at the end of the day. They let us know they appreciate us, which keeps us motivated and gives us strength. We work harder because of each of our customers,” Nick said sincerely.
One of those customers, Rio Delaportas, a Tarpon resident for 50 years who has known Manny since fourth grade, joined me for an impromptu lunch before becoming my Tarpon Springs guide for the afternoon. In addition to the classic flaming saganaki cheese, warm bread and flaky spanakopita, we shared one of Rio’s favorites – the lamb kebab. “I’ve been eating lamb all my life, and this is the best,” he said. Marinated, flame-broiled and skewered with green peppers and onions in an olive oil and lemon sauce, the oregano-sprinkled, warm lamb fillets arrived so tender and juicy that I quickly found out what he meant. Hellas family recipes, and their sides, such as Greek-style lemon potatoes and rice pilaf, have been passed down and taste like they could’ve been my family’s recipes.
After lunch, Rio walked me up and down the street, in and out of shops with artisanal soaps and natural sponge, introducing me to his friends (some of whom are staff in his various gift shops), to people who intimately know the Greek town where my yiayia grew up, and to others who know friends of mine in Tampa. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was the mayor of Tarpon.
After navigating shops with both kitschy charm and surprising offerings, Rio invited me on an afternoon dolphin cruise on his tour boat that was headed out to peaceful Anclote Key. So, I left the soft strains of the traditional Greek bouzouki behind, replacing it with Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” fading in and out with the breeze as I waited on the dock for the afternoon tour.
More than just a pretty ride to a barrier island, the excursion was informative, providing a combination of details about the history of the sponge industry in this area and tidbits about the ecosystem and working waterway of the Anclote River – including the 20-dolphin pod that lives in the area. Rio’s first mates are all Florida certified naturalists and some captains are even marine biologists, so they’re not only able to share information, but answer the many questions they’re peppered with as the boat glides through the water. As we navigated through the river and the gulf to the island, our first mate Rick assured us we were “heading to the most beautiful place in Tarpon.”
This was a sentiment echoed by Nick and Manny of Hellas: They assured me that the cruise should be how everyone winds down a visit. “See Tarpon from the water,” they said. “Let your mind rest and feel like you’re in Greece.”
So I did. And once back onshore, I left Tarpon with my belly full, arms stuffed with soap, sponges and food, and my heart full of love and pride for these people and their passion.
Hellas Restaurant & Bakery, 785 Dodecanese Boulevard, Tarpon Springs, 727-943-2400, hellasbakery.com