Taverna Opa could do very well without even trying. The Greek restaurant occupies a large space on the second level of Pointe Orlando, ideally situated in the heart of the tourist corridor in proximity to the Convention Center. It could thrive on the continuous influx of vacationers and conventioneers looking for a diversion, something different, perhaps entertaining, while putting some food in their bellies.
Taverna Opa is certainly something different, even from the usual Greek restaurant. It is a constant party atmosphere, a celebration you’ve wandered into and are made a part of. The traditional Greek dance music plays at a conversation-stopping level, waiters and bartenders frequently throw handfuls of white beverage napkins into the air, creating a sort of large-scale confetti deluge. The staff may persuade you to join them in a line dance that snakes through the multi-room restaurant.
And while you fill your belly, a veiled dancer undulates hers, occasionally coaxing a diner or five to join her atop the tables in group gyration. Like I said, Taverna Opa doesn’t really have to try that hard with the food to have people leave happy and satisfied.
The fact that it does is testament to the integrity of the people involved in the restaurant. They are passionate about Greek food -- authentic Greek food -- and are committed to using high quality products. The traditional part may flummox some people who believe they’ve had the real thing.
Take, for instance, the Greek salad, something you’ll find on dozens of Mediterranean menus around the area. Taverna’s is made with firm, fresh tomatoes, crispy cucumbers, bright green strips of bell peppers and piquant red onions. What it doesn’t have is lettuce; not a leaf. Romaine, even iceberg, is the basis of most Americanized Greek salads, usually topped with some feta crumbles and a couple of kalamata olives. The olives are there in Taverna’s salad, as well as a block of tangy feta, and a dash of olive oil.
Octopus is another staple of Greek menus. Often it has a chewy quality that isn’t very appealing. Taverna Opa’s octopus is grilled over oak wood, the tentacles sliced into coin-sized rounds, drizzled with oil and sprinkled with herbs. I try to stay away from extremes. It gets a little trite to exclaim that something was the “best I’ve ever had.” This was the best octopus I’ve ever had. Tender, not a bit of chewiness, and so wonderfully fresh tasting that I couldn’t keep myself from popping the pieces into my mouth.
The saganaki is always a crowd pleaser for the show of flames as the brandy doused over the vlachotiri cheese is set ablaze, but ultimately it’s just hot cheese. (I’d much rather eat more of the house hummus that is offered when guests are seated. The chickpeas are served in a wooden mortar with a pestle so that you can mash the legumes -- no tahini here -- to your preferred coarseness, then enjoy on soft, warm pita.)
The entree that Taverna Opa is featuring as part of the James Beard Foundation scholarship fundraiser is arni exohiko, which is a phyllo dough square roughly the size of a small throw pillow. Inside the flaky, buttery crust is a mix of lamb, potatoes, carrots, peas and manouri, a cheese similar to feta but milder and less salty. The vegetables were all fresh tasting and added vibrant colors, but I especially liked the gaminess of the bits of lamb.
I like to drink Greek wine when I’m eating Greek food, but I’m not really much of a fan of the varietals -- the wines are rarely any I would want to sip without food. The 2007 Ktima Tselepos from the Tegea region is an exception. Comprised of cabernet sauvignon and merlot, the wine was big and fruity, more in the style of California wines and old world. Taverna Opa has the only supply of this wine in Florida; if they have it, grab it.
Despite the occasional dancing and napkin throwing, the staff never leaves the guests wanting. They conduct themselves with good-humored efficiency.
International Drive is a hard sell for many locals. But every now and then there is a restaurant that makes it worth putting up with the traffic and the visiting throngs. Taverna Opa is one of those restaurants. This is seriously good Greek food served in a lighthearted atmosphere.
Taverna Opa is at Pointe Orlando, 9101 International Drive. It is open for lunch and dinner daily, late night on weekends. Although it does not participate in the Pointe’s complimentary valet parking program, Taverna validates self-parking tickets for the complex’s garage. (Guests may, of course, use the valet parking for a fee.) Entrees range from $15 to $35. The website is opaorlando.com. The phone number is 407-351-8660.
See also: Taverna Opa offers curbside pickup.