Restaurateurs Mike Isabella and George Pagonis signed a deal to open in College Park a branch of their popular Kapnos Taverna in Arlington three years ago. The reason no one could eat in the spinoff until September? It took all that time to build the adjoining 297-room Hotel at the University of Maryland, whose owners also created space for multiple eating establishments on the same block.
A highly anticipated addition to the area, Kapnos Taverna College Park takes into account its customer base — heavy on college students and university visitors — by offering what Pagonis calls a "consumer-friendly" version of the restaurant partners' Greek hospitality. Read: an all-day happy hour in the bar, where the choices include lamb-and-beef sliders. See: a dining-room menu whose mezze, or small plates, include such "approachable" dishes as a simple green salad and tuna tartare. "Every Kapnos we open, we test the market" to see what diners go for, says Pagonis, whose other Greek restaurants with Isabella include Kapnos in the District and Kapnos Kouzina in Bethesda.
Which is not to say fans of the brand won't find similar sophistication or flavor in Prince George's County, evinced by flaky, snack-size spanakopita served on a swipe of garlicky yogurt, among other introductions. As at the first Kapnos Taverna, this one entices diners with Greek dips to start. You can try three for $21, and at least one of them should be fish roe whipped with pureed cauliflower instead of the usual potatoes, although roasted eggplant and red pepper mixed with feta cheese and walnuts is a swell taste of the Mediterranean, too. The spreads are accompanied by tasty, salt-flecked flatbread, baked in the restaurant's visible oven.
From the selection of cold mezze comes pleasing stuffed grape leaves, cut on the bias and garnished with sweet grape slices and breezy mint. A crisp-edged slab of roasted pork shoulder topped with diced apple and mustard seeds takes the chill out of fall, while a juicy kebab of ground lamb and beef competes for the attention of your fork with its plate mates: a cool drift of tzatziki and the hot crunch of fried shallot rings.
Juan Rivera, the former chef de cuisine of the taverna in Northern Virginia and a longtime presence at Zaytinya in Washington, does a good job of fulfilling fans' expectations. Not to be missed is his "for the table" chicken, crisp from its time over a wood fire and presented on a creamy bed of barley threaded with spinach and dill. The only enhancement the shareable entree needs is a squeeze of the accompanying charred lemon. Stick around for dessert, and make it lemon-walnut torte — slices of which are set off with little scoops of basil ice cream and meringue rosettes.
The choice seats are in the main dining room, outfitted with a handsome bar and planters suspended from on high. This front space is almost a replica of the original taverna in Arlington, save for the bonus of a campus view in College Park.
In contrast, the dining area in the back, where the windows look into the lobby of the hotel, has the impersonal feel of a restaurant in a shopping mall — right down to the service. Dishes are announced and dropped off as if staff members are competing in a race. Yet when we try to order a bottle of wine, no one seems to be around. By the time the request is uncorked, we're almost finished with our entrees. A subsequent visit found smoother sailing, but your mileage may vary.
Any rough patches can be smoothed over with a chartreuse-colored "Angry Elf." Biting with tequila and serrano, it's among the liquid charms of the bar of a newcomer that's helping to elevate the dining cause in College Park.
7777 Baltimore Ave., College Park. 301-864-1983. kapnostaverna.com. Mezze, $3 to $21.