Let’s try to figure out why this restaurant is empty. And I mean empty in a big way. In the main dining room of Taverna Yama, I count more than 30 empty tables (three are occupied). There are darkened rooms around the main room of this massive restaurant that seats up to 500 people. In theory.
I don’t think the reason is its International Drive location. That would only explain the dearth of locals.
Maybe it has to do with the massive fish tank just inside the front door, the fish tank with water so cloudy that it’s nearly impossible to see that there are indeed living things inside it. Maybe people see that and make an assumption about the cleanliness of the place overall.
Or maybe the loud music that’s more appropriate for a dance club turns people looking for a more sedate meal away. (“Gangnam Style” played shortly after I was seated, to give you an idea of the type of music I mean.)
Or maybe they were greeted the way I was, by a surly young man who walked up to me slowly and asked “Can I help you?” as though meeting a bill collector.
It could also be the emptiness of the room that keeps it empty. People like to dine where other people are dining. “A 30 minute wait? OK, it must be worth it,” they reason.
It’s not, as you might be thinking, the curse of the building. This is where the ill-fated China Coast, Darden’s failed foray into something resembling Asian cuisine, began. It’s where a restaurateur opened a steakhouse that attempted to lure locals with a name of a popular restaurant that had just closed, even mimicking its font (but few thought it really had anything to do with Ronnie’s). And where Salt Island Chophouse & Fish Market did business, too. That this building is so close to the attraction called Titanic: The Experience is merely coincidental.
The unfortunate thing is that if people could get past the dirty looking water, the rude greeter, the pulsating music and embrace the thrill of being able to choose any table in the restaurant they desire, they just might have a decent meal.
I had the meat dolmades, which only looked odd because of the decorative extrusion of tzatziki sauce. There were five of the stogie-sized rollups surrounded by some cucumber slices and a halved cherry tomato, sprinkled with dried herbs. There was indeed more meat than rice inside but the taste wasn’t so much meatlike as it was vinegary from the grape leaves.
For my entree I had mousaka, the Greek lasagna with layers of pasta, potatoes and eggplant in a bechamel. It was a densely packed and generous portion, and the flavors were quite nice. It was surrounded by a moat of tomato sauce and sprinkled with grated cheese.
The rest of the rather extensive menu is filled with other Mediterranean style dishes featuring lamb, beef, chicken and seafood in preparations that sound appealing (the slow-roasted lamb in parchment paper, for example). Prices are hefty, with most of the entrees in the $20s; my mousaka was $15.
The server that the surly greeter passed me off to was pleasant and efficient. However, as I left, I passed others, including someone who looked managerial, but no one felt the need to thank me for my business.
Taverna Yamas is a second location for a Jacksonville restaurant, and both restaurants tout hookah lounges, as well, though the website for Orlando’s hookah lounge does not connect.
There are easy corrections to many of the problems that I noted here. It could even be that with improvements, locals would brave I-Drive to give it a try.
It could happen.
Taverna Yamas is at 7500 International Drive, Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. The phone number is 407-203-0960.