Make us your home page

Review: Zatar needs to spice up Middle Eastern, Mediterranean menu


Here was the lead of a story I wrote about the restaurant at 437 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg back in 2007: "Some restaurant locations just seem cursed. They cycle through cuisines and concepts — coffee shop to low-budget noodle house to frenetic fusion — and it's hard to be optimistic in the face of each new iteration. It has been that way in the old McCrory's dime store on St. Petersburg's Central Avenue."

Since that review (fairly favorable), it's kept on going. Let's see if I can do them in order: Tedesco's Grillside into Grillside Central into Diner 437 into Pipo's into Bici Trattoria. And now it's Zatar, a moderately priced Middle Eastern/Mediterranean restaurant owned by Jamal Jabaji, a first-time restaurateur.

All Bermuda-triangle mystical voodoo aside, the reasons so many restaurants have failed at this location are many. Inexperienced management, a concept that duplicates something else done better nearby, in-fighting, etc., but I think one of the biggest problems for the space is the space itself. It has a diner-style open kitchen at the front that creates a long, awkward alleyway dining room space that opens to a darkish boxy dining room at the back, none of it particularly convivial.

My Rx would be to move the kitchen to the back and open up the space, an undertaking only feasible for owners with deep pockets and a concept capable of recouping the cost. Jabaji has done something interesting with his money. The long list of tenants at this space has had beer and wine licenses, but he has ponied up the dough for a full liquor license. The going rate for these is $160,000, a lot of green for what's shaping up to be a downtown workers' lunch spot.

But we'll see. Opened earlier in March, it's still a baby taking its first wobbly steps. Thus far, there is only one menu at lunch and dinner, which may change. As is, pricing seems woefully out of whack: A hamburger and fries is $6.50, but a lima bean stew with rice is $16.95? Across the board the prices seem high to me, especially when compared to downtown St. Petersburg's other Middle Eastern/Mediterranean place, Meze 119. And thus far, flavors and whole dishes at Zatar don't compare favorably to that more veggie-centric Lebanese spot a few blocks away.

At Zatar, Baba ghanooj ($7.95) is made fairly tart, then decorated lavishly with ground sumac, a spice that adds a tart/bitter component, the overall effect puckery. Falafel sandwich wraps ($7.50) are too dry, as is a perplexing "lamb burger" ($9.95) which was more like a lamb crumble in a wrap, and its promised fries didn't show up.

I ordered the super-expensive lima beans and got the super-expensive okra stew ($16.95) instead: pleasant with little pods floating in a tomato/onion broth without a lot of seasoning beyond that.

On a couple of visits, the biggest disappointment was a mixed platter of meats ($28.95). The bed of undressed greens added nothing to the party, and the ground lamb kabob, beef, chicken and lamb chops were all dry and overcooked, with a passel of charred little onions more mysterious than edible.

I'm a big fan of Middle Eastern cuisines and since the first Gulf War there have been fewer of these on our dining scene. From Turkey to Lebanon, at their best these cuisines showcase healthy foods in gutsy but simple preparations. But Zatar, named for a sultry Middle Eastern spice mix, is going to have to kick it up a notch.

Laura Reiley can be reached at or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.



437 Central Ave.,

St. Petersburg

(727) 800-5062

Cuisine: Middle Eastern/Mediterranean

Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily

Details: AmEx, V, MC, Disc.; reservations accepted; full liquor

Prices: Starters $4.95-$7.95; entrees $6.50-$28.95

Rating out of four stars:

Food: ★ Service: ★★

Atmosphere: ★★

Overall: ★★

Review: Zatar needs to spice up Middle Eastern, Mediterranean menu 03/25/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 2:34pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. New podcast: Don't forget your goat leggings, Dragnet fans!


    The Stuck in the '80s podcast returned on Sunday with an episode on "Underrated Movies from 1987" - this time June of that year. This week, we celebrate the pure goodness of Dragnet and Roxanne

  2. Hernando Events for June 30-July 6


    30 Friday

    Free Zika training: Presented by the Hernando Computer Club, the training is for those who wish to assist in the effort to find a cure for the Zika virus. Club members are volunteers for World Community Grid and are donating their devices' spare computing power to help scientists find a …

  3. Boy Scouts to head up Temple Terrace's 4th of July parade


    TEMPLE TERRACE — Volunteering is a major priority in scouting and prepping teens to become leaders is the primary purpose of the Boy Scouts' Eagle Scout program.

  4. Lutz lends old-fashioned feel to 4th of July events


    LUTZ — Attendees of the Lutz 4th of July celebration will take a step back in time with a parade, games, races, music and the election of the Guv'na of Lutz.

  5. Top things to do in Tampa Bay for June 28


    The Art of the Brick: An elaborate display of more than 100 pieces of Lego artwork including the life sized sculpture of a man ripping open his chest, a 20-foot-long T-Rex skeleton, a giant skull and replicas of famous works including Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night and Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona …

    This artwork called "Swimmer" by artist Nathan Sawaya is part of The Art of the Brick exhibition coming to Tampa June 23- Sept. 4. It will be open for free.