Dodecanese Boulevard is cheek to jowl with restaurants, most of them purveyors of traditional Greek salads, souvlaki and moussaka. A lot of them have the added allure of great views of the historic and picturesque sponge docks. But the Anclote River isn't the only loveliness in Tarpon Springs. Lake Tarpon is gorgeous, with wading birds and gators fringing the banks, boats zipping across its glassy surface.
For a long time, the sole restaurant to take advantage of the view has been the Tarpon Turtle. It had been Jack Willie's Tarpon Turtle, a shambling good-times place that seemed to suffer increasingly from some P.R. problems (ouch, those Yelp reviews). Then, two years ago, William Hotaling and wife Christine Macedonio bought it and Willie's became Billy's. He is from Michigan, she from New York — they met in Tarpon Springs in 1986 at a fish camp at this very site. All these years later, Macedonio starts her day by saying good morning to the three alligators and miscellaneous turtles in residence.
The restaurant is pretty far from a fish camp these days. They spent the last two years gussying it up, its facelift including crisp linens and a menu overhauled to focus on upscale seafood and steaks. Fourteen boat slips outside mean some of the patrons are boat-shoed and slightly wind-rumpled, and three onsite bars mean more rumpling if you're so inclined.
The menu is vast and far-ranging, with seven pages of apps, salads, sandwiches, wraps, flatbreads, entrees and so forth. On two visits it struck me that this vastness may not always serve Billy's well, the kitchen forced into such a frenetic tap dance that they can miss a few steps. That goes for servers, too, who are lax about things like wiping tables down before seating new guests, or bringing the appropriate silverware in advance of a dish delivery (is there anything more exasperating than having steaming bowl of seafood bisque, $7.95, and no spoon?). At the bars, the bartenders are solicitous and chatty with regulars but brusque with strangers — which, of course, jeopardizes those strangers becoming regulars.
That's not to say there isn't some good work going on here. Macedonio is a strong presence in the dining room and things seem to run more smoothly under her watchful eye. And the kitchen can come up with some winners: Okay, the shrimp cocktail was floppy and flavorless ($10.95), but a "crab cake biscotti" ($13.95) brought a duo of crab cakes perched atop toasted English muffins with a mantle of Swiss and some tomato slices and scallion. A nice spin on crab cakes, although it read more like an open-faced sandwich than an appetizer.
Wings didn't rise to the level of some of the area's top sellers of Buffalo's finest, and the sweet potato fries ($4.95) seemed ill-conceived, topped with whipped cream and paired with a sweet, cinnamony sauce. Overall, it read like one of those weird desserts that gets someone chopped from Chopped.
That's a lot of tough love so far, but I can recommend the cold-water lobster tail topped with artichoke piccata sauce ($29.95), an elegant contrast of buttery, sweet lobster meat and brisk, tangy sauce, and another night's ribeye ($25.95) brought a nicely marbled piece of beef, its nutmeg-inflected creamed spinach a pleasant foil. And to finish, a low square of bread pudding ($6.95) packed a nutmeg wallop.
A magical setting such as this deserves commensurately lovely food and service, something that happens intermittently at Billy's Tarpon Turtle.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.