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 [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.