TARPON SPRINGS, FL – It has been 18 years since I first discovered the wonderful town of Tarpon Springs, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, which I have since dubbed “America’s Greek island” and have written about extensively on these pages over the years.
On that first trip, in Spring 1996, I was accompanied by my closest friend from childhood who at the time was, like me, a young, single, Greek-American New Yorker.
Without a care in the world, we flew into Tampa Airport, rented a car, and drove to Tarpon.
That afternoon, we headed to the Sponge Docks for a bite to eat and were immediately thrilled with all the Greek-like things we saw: sponge boats, tavernas playing Greek music, and tourists filling the sidewalks of the Docks’ main thoroughfare, Dodecanese Boulevard.
After a beach day and dinner, we decided to head back to the docks around 11PM to begin an evening of glendi – as any self-respecting Greek would do. Much to our complete amazement and disappointment, the Sponge Docks were desolate. “Where did everybody go?” we wondered. The next night, the same thing. The Sponge Docks were packed during the day, and a ghost town at night.
What kind of Greeks were these, we continued to wonder. What do they do – go to sleep at nine o’clock? That’s simply unheard of.
Despite the lack of bouzoukia ‘till sunup – with the exception of Zorba’s, which over the years has played live Greek music on the weekends into the wee hours of the morning – Tarpon Springs has remained a favorite destination of mine, and I’ve returned many times over the years, now sharing the experience with my wife and daughter.
One Monday evening in early July, I ventured to the docks, alone: my wife had put our toddler to sleep and decided to relax at home – and I had a yearning to sit on a bench at the docks and gaze at the moored boats. As I walked along the stores and restaurants, there was not a sound to be heard – as usual, it was a ghost town. And then, in the distance, I heard Greek music blaring from a speaker. I followed the sound and found my way to the newly-opened Barba Yiannis Taverna – at 498 Athens Street, just a couple of doors over from Zorba’s.
I walked in to find a few scattered customers and a festive table in the middle of the dining room floor – filled with food, drink and laughter. I was happy to see this going on close to midnight. An older teen – turns out, as I found out later, she just graduated from high school – asked me what I would like. An ouzo, please, I responded. “Give the main an ouzo – there it is, on that shelf!” bellowed the voice of a man committed to pleasing his customers. It was Barba Yianni himself – Yiannis Mihailidis, the owner.
It turns out the Thessaloniki-born proprietor has a lot of experience in the business, including having owned and run Zorba’s for nine years.
“We do everything like Greece here,” Yiannis said who, along with his fiancee, Irene Stamos, run the new Taverna. Irene’s daughter, Athena Rigas, was the one who asked me what I wanted to drink. She’s helping out for the summer, then heading to the Maryland Institute College of Art – pursuing a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, majoring in illustration.
“We stay open until our customers leave,” the convivial host said. “Why don’t other places stay open late here?” I asked. “I’ve been wondering about that for almost 20 years.” Yiannis simply shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “who knows?”
Yiannis did offer some words of wisdom about running a Greek restaurant: “it’s not automatic,” he said. “You have to buy them drinks, make them feel at home. Greeks thrive on that. Here, we make you feel like you’re in Greece.”
The tables have the feel of a music-centered environment, as beneath the glass tops sit covers of record albums of many of Greece’s all-time great musicians. In fact, Yiannis hopes to bring live music to the Taverna, but only if he expands. “I don’t want the live music blasting in here while people are having dinner,” he said, clearly conscious of what customers prefer.
Perhaps, then, Yiannis will be that go-to late night spot, night after night. For now, it depends on how late his customers want to stay – but judging from his hospitality, I expect that once the word spreads about this new spot in town, that will be quite often.