There are restaurant chains with consistent, high-quality food. Channelside tends not to get these restaurants. Instead, they cluster at International Plaza, WestShore Plaza and along Boy Scout Boulevard. What cruisers see upon debarkation at the Port of Tampa is a motley assemblage of shops, independents and second-tier chains.
The lineup is in another period of flux with a number of empty spots in the process of opening up as something new. I went to Taverna Opa with lowered expectations. Not that I'd eaten at an outpost of the concept that began in 1998 in Hollywood, Fla. — it was that, aside from Gallagher's Steak House, I couldn't remember the last time I'd eaten a decent meal at Channelside.
Knock me over with a feather, Taverna Opa serves good Greek food right on the water. It's got views, it's got belly dancing, plus napkin tossing and people yelling "Opa!" and, yes, it has got great Greek salads ($7, $13), moussaka ($12) and chicken souvlaki ($13).
On a weekend night, a band at Channelside's center butchers Pearl Jam as dressed-to-transgress young folks flit in and out of Wet Willy's. Taverna Opa, on the first floor across from Bennigan's, isn't on the circuit yet. At dinner, the huge space is calm, the excellent servers having sufficient time to tend to diners and make the long walk back to the kitchen.
First you get a plate of griddle-warmed flatbread and a mortar and pestle filled with chickpeas. Mash, I tell you, and spread the paste. Get a second plate of warm breads and break off pieces to dab in a nutty, sweet cold eggplant spread (it's called melitzanosalata, $4) or order the brandy-flamed then lemon-doused tableside saganaki ($7). It's made from kefalotiri, a pale gold sheep's milk cheese with a mild, salty flavor that's perfect when molten and just releasing its fat.
A number of family-style menus ($25 per person and up to $40 per person) allow you to try a range of hot and cold meze offerings along with meat and seafood platters and planks of delicious lemon-roasted potatoes and spinach leek rice. If you're going to order a la carte, grilled octopus with olive oil, vinegar and oregano ($9) is done well, and if you like your tentacles under wraps, a plate of crispy fried calamari with lemon ($7) is not overly chewy, with a nice, thin batter. The large version of the aforementioned Greek horiatiki salad is ample for four people: no lettuce, just wedges of ripe tomato, cuke, red onion, peppers and planks of feta. The whole thing is flecked with oregano and slicked with a simple, tangy vinaigrette.
Don't order a salad if you aim to have a gyro or souvlaki platter ($13) — each ample plate comes with its own salad, which you can eat separately or pile onto the warm flatbread with the thick tzatziki and skewers of grilled chicken or slices of juicy gyro meat.
If you've managed to get this far into the meal and are still hungry, the moussaka, rice-stuffed peppers ($12) and lemon chicken ($13) are all absurdly generous. This last is a half chicken, very homemade-tasting and moist, served with planks of potato and a raft of sauteed veggies. Moussaka, the size of an old-school boom box, is rich with bechamel, velvety soft eggplant and ground beef (I like the musky note of lamb, but oh well) — a great dish and, thankfully, one that heats up at home just fine the next day.
Decisions: If you follow that with dessert you will be unfit to volunteer for the belly dancing. Sweet options are mostly sugar-syrupy spins on phyllo and walnuts, the classic baklava ($4) a sticky, buttery prototypical version.
The wine list is heavily Greek, a risky move for a largely tourist audience. Still, with more new restaurants on the horizon at Channelside, Taverna Opa is a very positive development at the waterside complex.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Read her dining blog at tampabay.com/blogs/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.