Seldom have I paid such close attention to a restaurant closure, remodeling and reopening. Byblos Cafe began a major renovation last year, keeping the restaurant open as long as possible during the summer with some nifty temporary walls to shield diners from the mess. After Hurricane Irma they closed to do the heavy lifting, reopening early in December.
It wasn’t that I was a hyper-diligent journalist, shoe-leathering the heck out of my beat. It was that Byblos was on my morning running route. It was like a very sweaty time-lapse clip: I watched the outdoor fountain go in, wondered about the new Stonehenge-like pillars out front (they shield patio diners from noise on MacDill Avenue), saw the space shift from one of Tampa’s most long-standing Middle Eastern "ethnic restaurants" to something that seemed altogether modern and in many ways more mainstream.
Opened in 2001, Byblos made a name for itself with kebabs, hummus, falafel and weekly belly dancing. I went back and looked at the Times’ initial review: "This is not your long-haired undergraduate’s Middle Eastern, the kind of place where Birkenstockers read Hesse and are left with change from a five. That is exactly the point of the owners. The ... Estephan brothers from Lebanon wanted ‘someplace nice’ where they could enjoy the cooking of their homeland with sophistication. So they built one."
And 16 years later, they built it again. The new outdoor patio has high tops and low-top tables with a long banquette adjacent to an elegant glass-enclosed fireplace and water feature, candle flickers refracting off sheets of warm copper in a series of alcoves. The main bar area is high-ceilinged and white walled with dark wood seating and fancy bar shelves. At a glance, the cuisine could be anything — only the extra-vigilant will notice the figural poster of ancient Phoenician statues. (Byblos was the first great Phoenician port city.)
With the help of new general manager Manny Quinones, formerly of the Seminole Hard Rock’s Grey Salt, this fresh Byblos has a smart cocktail list, heavy on the brown liquors, an expanded beer and wine list and a bar that has buzzy glamor. There are Lebanese wines (meh), but the drink program could be that of any upscale South Tampa restaurant circa 2018.
In many ways, the food, helmed by new executive chef David Puatu (formerly chef de cuisine at Council Oak, also at the Hard Rock), follows suit. One of the best dishes is a "taste of Lebanon," a crazy bargain at $68 that easily feeds three with leftovers: hot and cold meze (baba ghanouj, hummus, labneh, falafel, kibbe, tabbouleh, grape leaves, hot pita on our visit), followed by chicken kebabs, beef kebabs and ground wagyu kefta. It is seriously, in one fell swoop, all the dishes that Middle Eastern food fans swoon about.
But, the Estephans know, not everyone is a Middle Eastern food fan. Rightly or wrongly (it’s wrongly), some folks think it’s too spicy, too tahini-y, too something. So the menu has pulled back somewhat, addressing the Mediterranean more broadly. I defy anyone to pigeonhole a dish like nutty roasted cauliflower glossed with garlic butter and set on an herbed labneh ($10). It reads like contemporary New American food. Same goes for a whole grilled branzino ($36), a delicious small Mediterranean sea bass that takes to charred lemon and rosemary and tangy chimichurri the way a fish takes to, well, you know.
The compressed watermelon with pork belly ($12) was the only dish that seemed a tad out of place, everything else, from roast chicken with za’atar ($25 for half, $50 for whole, it’s a family-style dish, the za’atar a spice blend that marries marjoram and thyme with sesame and sumac) to a trio of pastas fit right in. If you pay attention to the national dialogue about food, the past couple of years have been dominated by enthusiasm for the flavors of Israel, Lebanon and other parts of that region, spices like sumac and baharat blend creeping into the vernacular.
The Estephan brothers have upped their game at the bar and in the kitchen (a new wood grill gives extra smoky oomph to meats), adding ADA-compliant bathrooms (the old bathrooms were a bit sketch) and fancy Restoration Hardware-ish chandeliers. So is anything lost by one of Tampa Bay’s most fabled Middle Eastern restaurants getting a hipper vibe? Not that I see. If you need your Thai restaurant to have a framed portrait of King Bhumipol and your Chinese restaurant to have lots of dragon decor doodads to convince you they’re the "real deal," maybe you’re being a little culturally rigid. Byblos has busted out of its "ethnic restaurant" mold, and everyone benefits.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.
2832 S MacDill Ave., Tampa; (813) 805-7977; bybloscafe.com
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 1 to 9 p.m. Sunday
DETAILS: AmEx, V, MC, Disc.; reservations accepted; full bar; takeout and UberEats delivery
PRICES: Meze $7 to $14; main dishes $14 to $36; family-style dishes $50-$85
RATING, out of four stars:
Food: * * *
Service: * * *
Atmosphere: * * *
Overall: * * *