TARPON SPRINGS — Over the past year, Tarpon Tavern owner Dan Jenkin lost track of how many times he was asked when his adjacent restaurant, the Tuscan Sun Italian Bistro, would reopen.
“Dozens would be an understatement,” the affable Jenkin said recently. “It’s been a lot. Especially with the Tavern next door. The employees there became like unofficial ambassadors for the Bistro, they were asked about it so many times!”
Like many small business owners, Jenkin closed his Italian eatery when the coronavirus crisis hit last March. But unlike other businesses, including his own tavern, the bistro never reopened save for a short stint attempting takeout, leading many people to question when, and if, the popular Safford Avenue restaurant would ever come back.
“That’s the nice part of living in a small community like Tarpon Springs,” he said. “They support it and they want to see it succeed.”
On Wednesday, Feb. 10, the community finally got its wish, as Jenkin reopened the restaurant following an 11-month closure. And while The Bistro, as it’s now called, features a new layout, color scheme and menu items, Jenkin assured everyone the foundation of the eatery is the same, if not better.
“When people came to the Bistro they came for the full experience — the staff, the atmosphere and the energy,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t going to allow COVID to beat us. So I decided to use the down time wisely and see what we wanted to be moving forward.”
Jenkin, whose longtime partner, former City Commissioner Rea Sieber, owns a wine shop on the Sponge Docks, elected to revamp his business model, changing everything from the paint to the plates to the floorplan in an effort to open the place up and make it more vibrant and livelier to better reflect the changing dynamics of the community.
“I said, ‘Let’s pivot in the direction the town is moving,’” Jenkin said, noting with the new townhomes being built nearby as well as other residential developments in the works, the city is starting to “skew younger.”
Stating he didn’t want the Bistro to be like “two restaurants, with a bar on one side and a dining room on the other,” Jenkin decided to knock down some walls and expand the bar to make it more open and inviting. “We also took the opportunity to offer new food options, including European and Mediterranean dishes and things you might not find in Greek restaurants,” he said, citing the Bistro’s “Greek cigars,” a new take on the Greek staple spanakopita, with feta cheese, spinach and dill rolled in a crunchy wrap, as well as tapas and light-menu fare suitable for snacking.
“People want small bites now, sharable items,” the veteran restaurateur said.
Jenkin noted they still serve some old favorites, including pasta vinaiola and the popular charcuterie board and homemade giant meatballs, and they added some new flavors to traditional favorites like octopus and osso buco, as well. He said they are starting off by serving dinner only starting at 4 p.m. with a limited menu that would be expanded to feature new items in the coming weeks and months.
“We know we can’t please all of the people all the time, but we always think of the customers first,” Jenkin said, adding 80 percent of the front-of-house staff has returned for the reopening. “They loved what they did, and they loved the customers, and they are all excited to be back.”
Based on the impressive turnout, the people of Tarpon Springs were excited The Bistro was back, also.
“We are so happy that this staple of downtown Tarpon Springs has finally reopened,” Scott and Bunni Lefebre said from the bar area. “We just love the new atmosphere and layout of the place.”
Kathy Monahan, who noted she received the first drink served in the new Bistro, said, “We were the first ones in because we were waiting and waiting and waiting for this day. This is a celebration of coming back to joy and normalcy.”
“Everyone knows everyone in here,” her husband, Jim McNeely added. “Everyone knows your name.”
After Monahan admitted she had been “texting Dan every month” to see when he would reopen, Jenkin said he was glad to have that aspect of the last year behind him.
“When people ask me now when we’re going to be open, I can answer, 4 p.m.!” he said.