There are more than 10,000 species of fresh- and saltwater sponges, simple animals that sit quietly feeding on plankton and warding off enemies with little toxin-tipped spikes. They are not, as a certain cartoon suggests, loud and obnoxious with a weakness for physical comedy. Still, for some reason, since before the birth of Christ we have been hauling them out of the deep and using their skeletons to clean behind our ears or wipe up a mess.
These days Tarpon Springs is more about the idea of sponges than actual sponge diving. Since the 1950s and the advent of synthetic sponges, the Greek sponge divers who populated this town have been largely re-employed as fishermen, tour boat captains and — most germane to our purposes — restaurateurs.
The town is still more than a third Greek, with a sweet, Old Florida tourist attraction charm that really centers around delicious things to eat. Walking out onto the main drag, Dodecanese Boulevard, there are seven blocks of shops and restaurants here alone. How do you settle on a place? We did the legwork so all you have left is the forkwork. Here are our favorites:
200 E Tarpon Ave.; (727) 940-5377
THE VIBE: The bar here was part of the set for the filming of the 1953 Robert Wagner sponge drama, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef. These days Tracey Swade and Bobby Clark have crafted the historic building into a contemporary dining room with pale fawn walls, rich brown brocade booths and a magnificent long wooden bar.
THE DISH: The first one out of the gate and it's not Greek. Variety being the spice that it is, this one comes with a New American inflection, especially deft with seafood. The chef has a keen eye for aesthetics, as in a seared fillet of salmon perched on blue cheese mashed potatoes surrounded by a hash of sauteed spinach, roasted corn and lengths of sauteed shiitake mushroom.
MANOLO'S MEDITERRANEAN BISTRO
150 E Tarpon Ave.; (727) 940-5237
THE VIBE: Near the train tracks and about a block beyond the Pinellas Trail, it's in a part of town with a fair number of empty storefronts. But the 1-year-old Manolo's is all inviting charm, with a big brick wall and a wrought-iron balcony from which diners peer down.
THE DISH: Chef/owner Manolo Rivera is doing Italian-Spanish fusion, with a passion for paella. With a menu section for Italian dishes and one for Spanish, he favors gutsy and rustic flavors like grilled skirt steak served with sauteed spinach and topped with a housemade chimichurri sauce.
THE ORIGINAL MAMA MARIA'S GREEK
503 N Pinellas Ave.; (727) 934-5678
THE VIBE: This is a long-timer in the area, since 1978, a sprawling blue and white building in a little strip mall adjacent to a charming coffeehouse called the Eco Bean. It was started by Maria Koursiotis (a.k.a. "Mama") after her sponge diver husband, John, got the bends. (Her sister owns Mama's on Dodecanese.)
THE DISH: It's Greek home-style cooking, known for its dolmades, keftedes (fried Greek beef meatballs served with a big squirt of lemon and curiously delicious sauteed onions served over linguine) and chargrilled octopus.
802 N Pinellas Ave.; (727) 937-2795
THE VIBE: Pass Snookers (feed live gators!) and the recently defunct Original Pappas Shrimp Boat, and on your right you'll find Mr. Souvlaki just before the turn onto Dodecanese. It's a casual, diner-like affair, nothing glamorous, known for its gargantuan portions and reasonable prices.
THE DISH: Are you serious? Did you read the name? Souvlaki is the thing, but locals swear by the "Greek chow mein." I dunno about that, but the Greek salad here is vast, with a scoop of potato salad hidden craftily in its midst (it's a Tarpon thing).
900 N Pinellas Ave.; (727) 934-7484
THE VIBE: Bill and Dolores Loder started their Crabby Bill's empire more than 25 years ago. This particular outpost opened in 2009, with the same seafood-themed menu of the other corporately owned properties in the chain (the two franchise restaurants have different menus). It's a happy-hour kind of place with live music out on what they call the "loading dock" (that's the deck).
THE DISH: Head for fried shrimp and combination platters that bring oysters, shrimp, clams and Pollock together for a little hot oil Jacuzzi.
628 Dodecanese Blvd.; (727) 934-4306
THE VIBE: Andy Salivaras has been in Tarpon a long time, having opened Mykonos in 1991. It's been one of the anchor restaurants on the main drag since, with a prime location and a just-fancy-enough interior to appeal to date-nighters and families alike.
THE DISH: All the greatest hits are in evidence (tender lamb shank, flaming saganaki, sauteed octopus), but head for one of the lesser-known Greek dishes like youvetsi, a homey individual casserole of lamb baked with pasta. Meals often end with complimentary apples with honey and cinnamon.
DIMITRI'S ON THE WATER
690 Dodecanese Blvd.; (727) 945-9400
THE VIBE: This may be the most gastronomically ambitious restaurant in all of Tarpon, a recent entry that has set up in the old Santorini location (one of only two restaurants downtown that are directly on the water). Right across the street from Mykonos, it is presided over by Andy Salivaras' son, Dimitri, a CIA grad and serious chef. The restaurant makes good use of the views of the Anclote River, with an upscale dining room and deck suitable for special occasions.
THE DISH: The specials often contain jewels like a recent whole-roasted mango snapper, a gorgeous fish with flavorful flesh and crisp skin, served with lemon wedges and a side of rosemary-scented, tomatoey chickpeas and another of just-bitter sauteed curly endive, altogether a fabulous combination of colors and flavors. Some locals also assert that Dimitri's has the best lamb wrap in town.
769 Dodecanese Blvd.; (727) 934-4752
THE VIBE: Forty-five years this place has been here, a stalwart and casual space with gyro rotisseries lined up across the windows out front. Claude and Christopher Droses and Arthur Sutula lead the show. And that show involves gyros.
THE DISH: Why are gyros the thing here? They make the gyro meat themselves. This is rare: Stainless-steel molds are packed with a blend of beef and lamb and spices, then frozen for 48 hours. A little warm water on the outside of the mold allows the meat inside to be popped out, then the roll is fitted onto the rotisserie and it begins turning against the flame. (Most restaurants resort to commercial gyros out of Chicago, which often contain fillers.) Plaka is also known for its lamb shanks and rack of lamb, but do yourself a favor and try a homemade gyro sandwich.
937 Dodecanese Blvd.; (727) 934-4047
THE VIBE: It's the other of the two downtown restaurants right on the water, making excellent use of it with a brand-new outdoor tiki deck upon which you are guaranteed to hear Jimmy Buffett and his ilk. It's a fun, flip-flops-and-rum-runners place, which in no way takes away from the seriousness with which owners Julie and Jack Russell regard fresh seafood. Their third-generation seafood market, Pelican Point Seafood, is next door, and the family owns and operates a bunch of commercial boats that supply both restaurant and shop.
THE DISH: Dishes are named for local fishermen and their boats, the best of which involve shrimp in one way or another. Grilled, fried or peel-and-eat, these are great-tasting crustaceans, often paired with the day's fresh catch and served with an array of sauces (lemon-dill, cilantro-lime) that are surprisingly sophisticated for such a laid-back place.
MAMA'S GREEK CUISINE
735 Dodecanese Blvd.; (727) 944-2888
THE VIBE: At the corner of Dodecanese and Athens Street, Mama's is a simple, casual blue building with belly dancers on Sundays and live Greek music on the weekends (canned bouzouki piped out of speakers during the off times). Started by a woman from Kalymnos, Greece, in 1978, Mama's has a wide patio that seems to be the place to sit, with ample views of the Natural Sea Sponge and Soap Museum and the Saw Grass Tiki Bar. .
THE DISH: Service can be a little gruff here, but all is overlooked when they bring you a plate of flaming saganaki, gratis. The menu is huge (I must give tourists the hairy eyeball for gravitating toward burgers and fries), with a generalist's approach, doing lots of things well: Moussaka, skordalia (potato garlic spread) and whole charbroiled snapper are all laudable. After dinner, step next door to Trolley Stop Ice Cream for a cone and then peruse Tarpon's many artisanal soap stores (is it just that sponge and soap are such an effective combo?).
521 Athens St.; (727) 938-6890
THE VIBE: Not on the main drag, it's two stories with a few tables out front, boasting a clean and pretty interior. This is a good choice for the rookie, not because the food is training-wheels Greek, but because all the dishes get snapshots out front, so you can tell a moussaka from a pastitsio.
THE DISH: Go grilled octopus over fried calamari, order the eggplant and feta dip (it's called melitzanosalata, dare you to say it) and for lunch head for the "Greek Pizza" (less crazy than it sounds, it's spinach and feta on a sauce-slathered pita topped with melted mozzarella). For some reason, Costas contains an ATM and also sells cigars and cigarettes.
785 Dodecanese Blvd.; (727) 943-2400
THE VIBE: Someone must be charged with constantly Windexing the glass cases in the bakery, there are so many eager noses pressed against it every day. Hellas has been one of the big guns in Tarpon since 1970, its reputation boosted by the huge attached Greek bakery (clearly doing well enough to have recently annexed the property behind it as a new parking lot). The restaurant is a lively spot, family friendly, with cheerful servers and a broad enough menu to hit every price point.
THE DISH: On the bakery side, the baklava cheesecake is silly good, and in the restaurant my favorite entree is slowly braised tomatoey lamb shanks, served somewhat incongruously atop spaghetti. There are addictive garlic shrimp, nice gyros in warm Greek pita, and a very generous Greek salad that comes with a scoop of potato salad like a depth charge in its midst.
CHLOE'S FAMILY RESTAURANT
1722 S Pinellas Ave.; (727) 943-2999
THE VIBE: The newest restaurant in Tarpon is a bit off the beaten path, near the Tarpon Springs Golf Course. After opening the place in May, owners Sophia and John Pappas recently received an award from City Hall, the city clearly pleased to have seasoned pros inhabit a space that has hosted a number of failed efforts over the years. This is pure family diner, breakfast all day, complete with low prices and high spirits.
THE DISH: The signature dish thus far is a flat, panini-like sandwich atop of which sliced ribeye steak, veggies and feta perch. Chloe's makes its own bread, salad dressings and feather-light cheesecakes.
When asked why Chloe's will succeed where so many other restaurants have failed, Sophia, a recent transplant from Westchester County, N.Y., says, "I've been doing this since I was 16. Whatever I do, I do it with my heart." Sounds like a credo that suits many of Tarpon's restaurateurs, old and new.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. She dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.