By Kelley Carlson
With his newest venture, restaurateur George Katakalidis has continued to stay true to his Greek roots. And the steady stream of customers at Taverna Blu suggests that the establishment is blossoming. Tucked in among the shops of the Del Mar Highlands Town Center, a few doors down from the Cinepolis Luxury Cinemas, Taverna Blu is a modern, upscale, polished version of a Greek taverna — the equivalent of a French bistro or an English pub.
“This was an opportunity to do something I always wanted,” said Katakalidis, founder and past CEO of the Daphne’s restaurant chain and a former professional soccer player.
Open since June, the neighborhood eatery features a brick-floored patio with umbrellas the hue of the Mediterranean to shade customers on bright, sunny days.Through the glass doors is a comfortable indoor dining area, with seating arrangements that easily allow for socialization.The décor, which includes blue-gray hues, bricks in varying shades, mirrors, and tongue-in-cheek signs about wine, adds to the warmth. Pop music from the ‘70s through today contributes to the atmosphere.
“We wanted to make it so people come in and feel right at home,” Katakalidis said.
The menu is inspired by Katakalidis’ northern Greek heritage. It is “purposefully designed for the neighborhood and family.” It’s also chef-driven, healthy and very fresh, he added. It’s also heavily vegetarian, although meat and seafood can be added for an extra cost.
In fact, most of the items are gluten-free, and Katakalidis said the eventual goal is to reach 100 percent.
Customers may want to ensure they are hungry when they dine at Taverna Blu; the portions are on the large side, especially the salads and pastas. Try the Athenian Greek Salads with greens, tomato, cucumber, olives, onion and feta, or Katakalidis’ favorite, the Garlic Pesto-ccine.
The pitas are also sizable; Katakalidis said the Calamari Steak version is “probably the best you’ll ever have, hands down.”
Then there are the house specials, served with grilled vegetables and a choice of Taverna Rice (with tomato and a hint of lemon), garlic mashed potatoes or fries. Slow Braised Lamb Shank and Grilled Salmon Lemonato have proven to be the most popular so far at the restaurant, according to Katakalidis.
The small plates options include Sauteed Lemon Greens; Sa-ga-naki, soft cheese flamed tableside; and a trio of Greek Tacos, with a choice of gyro, chicken or falafel.
For dessert, try some Heaven -- mascarpone, chocolate mousse, espresso and amaretto — or a Baklava Vanilla Ice Cream Sundae.
Katakalidis recommends visiting the restaurant multiple times and experiencing the numerous menu items, so patrons can try “all the different flavors of the small plates, sandwiches and specials.”
“It you want anything special done to your order, just ask,” he said. As with most restaurants, Taverna Blu’s activity peaks on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, but “when it’s raining, it’s not that busy,” Katakalidis said.
Takeout and catering are also available through the establishment.
Address: 12873 El Camino Real, Carmel Valley
The Vibe: Social, casual