Following the coronavirus-mandated restaurant shutdown, newly reopened Tampa Bay eateries are starting to regain their footing. From unique takeout and delivery options to new safety and social distancing precautions, restaurant owners and chefs are adapting to the new normal in different ways. In this series, our food and dining critic visits Tampa Bay restaurants and writes about what the experience is like in this current world — whether you are taking out or dining in.
Earlier this year, I had lunch at Psomi, then still a brand new Greek restaurant on Tampa’s N Howard Avenue.
I sat inside the beautiful, airy dining room and cozied up against a wall of plush cushions outfitted with light and dark blue accents. I ordered a roasted chicken salad that was fantastic. I snacked on twice-fried french fries and dunked them in a bright purple kalamata olive aioli. I stared up at the tall white walls dotted by sunlight and dangling potted plants and thought: I cannot wait to come back here.
Of course, life had other plans. A few months and a global pandemic later, I finally made it back — and found that a lot has changed.
For one, the restaurant is no longer serving meals inside that cozy dining room. With the recent uptick in coronavirus cases, owner Christina Theofilos decided to focus exclusively on takeout while giving diners the option to stay and eat while seated on one of the restaurant’s two shaded outdoor patios.
In a way, Psomi was already well-suited to this takeout pivot. Besides the two spacious outdoor areas, a grab-and-go bakery and cafe is a central part of the eatery, which is housed in what was once an old yellow service station at 701 N Howard Ave. Little of its predecessor is recognizable now, and the sleek and sophisticated aesthetic — designed by Theofilos’ mother Elisabeth — feels modern and welcoming.
Theofilos grew up in Tampa; the restaurant is largely a tribute to her Greek heritage. Many of the recipes are direct hand-me-downs from her mother and grandmother, while others draw inspiration from across the greater Mediterranean region. While her family members run the front of the house, Theofilos helms the kitchen, an impressive feat for someone who had up until recently never worked in food service.
It’s been a steep learning curve, Theofilos said, and with the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in Florida, she expects there are more changes ahead. For now, the restaurant is cutting out breakfast and moving to a lunch and dinner model, with the exception of Sunday brunch, which will continue for the foreseeable future.
Psomi, pronounced “sew-me,” means “bread” in Greek, a fitting moniker for the operation, where the bakery-cafe makes up a big part of the business. Theofilos hired baker Peter Watson to run the program, and all of the breads and baked goods are made in-house, from the chewy bagels to fluffy pita breads and sweet Greek pastries.
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Whether you’re grabbing a full meal to-go or just stopping by for a latte, it’s tempting to grab a slice of sticky, flaky baklava ($4.50) or a dozen koulouria ($3) on your way out. The latter are like sweet braided butter cookies, perfect for dunking into a cup of coffee, which the restaurant sources from St. Petersburg’s Bandit Coffee Co. Or try a boozy Greek frappe, if the mood strikes.
For those looking for a completely contactless experience, ordering online is quick and easy. (The restaurant has also partnered with Grubhub, if delivery is desired.) To order directly from Psomi, just click the “curbside pickup” tab and then text the restaurant your name and make and model of your car. A masked staff member will put your order in your backseat or trunk when you arrive, and you’ll be on your way.
At the moment, an all-day menu features a lunch-heavy spread of dips and pita bread, salads and “handhelds” (sandwiches), most of which can be ordered deconstructed as platters, too.
Flavorful dips (also served in pint-sized to-go containers) run the gamut from creamy, cucumber-laced tzatziki ($8) to favosalata ($8), a garlicky yellow split pea spread, and melitzanosalata ($8), a roasted eggplant dip with tomato and garlic. All are served with puffy triangles of warm pita bread.
For big appetites, look no further than the Greek Dip ($16), one of the best sandwiches I’ve had in recent memory. First, there’s the infrastructure: a baguette so perfectly crusty I had to do a double take. Then, there’s the accoutrement: caramelized onion schmaltz (read: chicken fat given a huge umami flavor boost) and skordalia aioli, a mayonnaiselike schmear made with garlic and mashed potatoes. The star of the show is the flavorful feta-brined chicken, essentially a bird that’s given a long, 48-hour salty soak before getting roasted. Tying it all together is the zing from a bright, lemony vinaigrette and peppery punch of arugula. A dunk in the accompanying caramelized onion jus and you’ve got the perfect bite of salt, fat, acid and crunch.
On the lighter side, but still featuring that same feta-brined chicken, the Greek Chick salad ($16) comes with a fat, creamy wedge of feta cheese crowing a bowl of mixed greens, hearts of palm and red onions, all drizzled with a Dijon vinaigrette and served with a side of thick-cut fries.
Also very good is the grilled octopus horiatiki ($22), which tastes refreshing and bright, and arrives overflowing with juicy heirloom tomato wedges, crisp cucumbers and thin, tangy strips of bell peppers, red onions and pepperoncinis. The highlight of the dish is the chewy, charred octopus, which imparts a smoky hit to each bite. Crispy fried chickpeas, dusted in za’atar spice and a wedge of burnt lemon, provide the final kick of acid and crunch.
Having a shaded outdoor patio is key in these trying times, and lucky for Psomi (and for diners), there are two. While the restaurant isn’t currently seating inside the main dining room, on weekend nights, guests are welcome to order and pay up front and take a seat outside, where servers are on hand for water refills and any other drink orders.
Beyond a creative cocktail program (Santorini spritz or Ouzo sour, anyone?) the wine list here is an impressive selection of exclusively Greek wines, almost all of which are natural or organic. That right there might be reason enough to while away an afternoon or early evening outside. With the fans blowing on the shaded stone terrace, it’s easy to imagine, if just for a moment, that you’re actually summering in Mykonos.
If you go
701 N Howard Ave., Tampa; (813) 841-5555; eatpsomi.com
Hours: Bakery and cafe only, 8 a.m.-noon Tuesday-Saturday; lunch, noon-3 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; dinner, 5:30-8:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; brunch, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday.
Price: Salads, $13 to $22; handhelds, $13 to $16.
Don’t skip: Greek Dip sandwich; grilled octopus horiatiki; Greek chick salad
Take out/delivery: Order online or through Grubhub for delivery. For pickup, click the “curbside pickup” tab and text the restaurant your name and make and model of your car. A masked staff member will put your order in your backseat or trunk.
Safety measures: All staff wear masks and no inside dining is permitted.