Imagine a town so devoid of culinary cultivation that even the opening of a Red Lobster seems like a leap toward civilization. Yes, we're talking about Largo, where the words "fine" and "dining" have seldom been seen together. Exceptions do exist: two peapod-size palaces of continental cuisine, Cafe Largo and Six Tables. But who could guess that George and Ginny Pappas (no relation to the Tarpon Springs Pappas clan) would be the entrepreneurs who'd rouse the Clearwater-Largo Road section of Largo from its long cultural slumber? For years, they've presided over a locally popular, down-home (if ho- hum) family cafe serving the traditional Greek/Italian/American menu mix that keeps cash registers ringing all along the Suncoast. Ignoring the adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," the Pappas family did a Linda Tripp-style transformation on the old George Pappas Family Restaurant. When the bandages came off, lo and behold, there stood Pappas' Grillmarks, New World Bistro and Bar. Months after its reopening, traffic still screeches to a halt as Largonians gasp at Grillmarks' bold new exterior. Follow the traffic jam inside and you'll see an updated interior polished enough to make it in Tampa, replete with dark woods, cozy lighting, vintage Italian adverts on the walls, heavy silverware and customized dishes on the tables.
While the decor of Grillmarks steps boldly into the new millennium, the menu treads very lightly, and rightly so. An older crowd was the loyal mainstay of the Family Restaurant, and Grillmarks takes pains to hold onto old friends while attracting a younger, marginally hipper audience. Dining before 7 is like attending a live performance of the Sansabelt catalog. After 7, tables fill with younger couples, but even twentysomethings dressed in sequins straddle babies on their hips. The menu walks a fine line between this span of generations, offering plenty of old favorites along with a nonthreatening look at more contemporary tastes.
Greek-American dishes are no longer the star. Avgolemo, the popular egg-lemon-orzo soup, is there, along with Greek salads, but dishes like moussaka and spanakopita (spinach and feta baked in a phyllo crust, $8.70) show up only as daily specials. The new menu takes a gentle look at New World with starters like large, crisp spring rolls, sliced on the slant into four pretty packages stuffed with chicken, black beans, corn and green onions and drizzled with sweet dipping sauces ($5.60). A more adventurous offering is tuna sashimi, seared outside, raw inside, served with crispy rice noodles, pickled ginger and a gentle wasabi soy Dijonnaise sauce ($5.90). It's a new notion in this neighborhood, one I didn't see flying out of the kitchen. Try it, folks, and discover a taste the rest of Tampa Bay has heartily embraced.
Big bowls of pasta are a clear customer favorite. Linguini amatriciana ($9.90) is a huge bowl of linguine smothered in spicy, rustic tomato sauce flavored with pancetta (Italian bacon), fontina cheese, garlic and fresh basil, with enough red pepper to make you mop your forehead. Like all entrees, it comes with crusty bread, herb-infused olive oil for dipping, and a huge salad, either the Greek with a lemony vinaigrette or the bistro salad with spring greens, bleu cheese, walnuts, sliced strawberries and a raspberry vinaigrette. In addition, grilled entrees come with a choice of sun-dried tomato orzo, baked sweet or white potato, garlic smashed potatoes or sauteed fresh vegetables. No one goes hungry here!
I counted baby back ribs in a sweet sauce ($9.99 a slab, $13.90 whole) at a third of the tables. Meat loaf, cut in thick slabs, stacked against a mound of garlic smashed potatoes and drizzled with basil marinara sauce ($8.90) is another crowd pleaser. Newer takes on entrees are a thick filet of yellow fin tuna, grilled and glazed with a sweet teriyaki and topped with tropical fruit salsa ($18.90). The succulent fish, nicely crisped on the outside, showed a sure hand was running the grill.
In fact, the best dishes I tasted were those that had — no surprise — grill marks. A big, juicy porterhouse-cut pork chop, grilled and glazed with a sweet mango sauce, was as fine a cut of meat as I've had anywhere ($13.90). For beef, go for the house signature steak, a New York Strip cut of Certified Black Angus Beef, with a lovely charred crust and a glaze of Jack Daniel's steak sauce (10-ounce $15.50, 14-ounce $17.90). Between my visits, the menu was already moving away from highly stacked and skewered New World styling, but I'll bet this tasty selection of grilled steaks and chops remains unchanged long into the future.
There's a modest, though well-selected wine list, with many bottles ranging from $15 to $22, many available by the glass, and an upbeat dessert menu with fun offerings, like chocolate ganache served as a tennis ball-size truffle and pistachio creme brulee garnished with caramel-glazed bananas.
As Grillmarks transforms, it walks a precarious path between honoring the old while tempting us to try the new. Nowhere are the pitfalls of change more apparent than in service, which, like the menu, sometimes teeters between "What kin I gitcha, honey?" and "Would you care for something from the bar?" Dirty dishes linger far too long on the table, and in a place where huge servings guarantee take-homes, staff should be prepared to do more than drop Styrofoam containers in your lap. Take a cue from the stylish service at Tampa's Blue Gardenia, where take-homes are whisked away to the kitchen and returned, nicely packaged, with your check — a consideration so classy it should be declared the Leftover Law.