The night before her new restaurant's opening, Sofia Petridis-Lim realized she was short on pita bread, which is imported directly from Greece. Rather than serve an inauthentic substitute, the new restaurateur insisted on getting the real thing, even though it meant asking her husband, Andy, to drive to the nearest distributor—which happens to be in San Jose. Andy was on the road by 5 o'clock the next morning, just four hours before Taverna Sofia, Healdsburg's newest Mediterranean restaurant, opened its bright blue doors for business.
And then the rain came.
Even though water is pelting the wooden tables on her outdoor patio, Petridis-Lim is all sunshine when we meet at 5pm that afternoon. "This is my dream," she tells me, indicating both the patio and the cozy dining room, in which first-day customers sit on plush blue-and-white cushions. Andy reviews another shopping list, while their daughter, Cassandra, who's made the drive up from Monterey State, works the takeout counter. As far as opening days go, it's been a good one.
Though she only just graduated from the SRJC culinary arts program in July—the same month she signed the lease on the space, formerly Bovolo, inside Copperfield's Books—Petridis-Lim's dream has deep roots that go back to her childhood in Thessaloniki, Greece. It was there that she learned how to cook traditional Mediterranean cuisine from her grandmother, who raised her after her father died and her mother went back to work. "She taught me everything I know," Petridis-Lim says.
But despite her affinity for the regional palate, she fled Greece at 21, restless to see the world and unwilling to "get married, stay home and breed," as expected. After living in France and England, and earning a degree in administration management, Petridis-Lim began working as a flight attendant in Saudi Arabia, where she served everyone from the royal family to pilgrims on their way to Mecca to illegal immigrants being deported.
"It was extremely hard work," she tells me, explaining that her duties ranged from taking inventory of the first-class gold cutlery to using blanket barricades to prevent misfired urine from leaking out of the bathroom during landing. Even more surprising: "The food was excellent," Petridis-Lim insists, crediting the airline's deep pockets. It was in the air that she met her future husband, Andy, a pilot from Hong Kong, who eventually asked her to move with him back to the United States.
Yet no matter where she lived (Phoenix, Taiwan, Novato) or what else she pursued (including a second degree in international studies and a second career managing psychotherapy clinics), cooking remained her first passion. So three years ago, when Petridis-Lim found herself jobless after over a year of searching, it seemed a natural step to enroll in the SRJC's culinary school.
"I didn't miss a single hour of class," Petridis-Lim tells me. "I'd been cooking for so long, I thought I knew it all," she laughs, "but there was still so much to learn." She completed the two-year program in just 15 months, earning yet another degree and graduating with honors.
Echoes of the culinary arts program, which Petridis-Lim hails as "magnificent," can be felt all over Taverna Sofia: in the spotless open kitchen ("I have nothing to hide"); in the handsome display cases featuring both sweet and savory pastries like spanakopita ($7.50), bougatsa ($6.50) and Sofia's signature baklava ($6), made with pistachios, walnuts and almonds; even in the faces of her staff, many of whom hail directly from the program.
Petridis-Lim's apparent calm on opening day belies the rocky journey it took to get here, which began with a four-month wait to meet with the landlord. After signing the lease, it took her another two months to convince the city of Healdsburg to allow an outdoor mural, by local artist Brooks Anderson, depicting the island of Santorini. "I wanted to create the feeling of a true Greek taverna," she tells me, "where you sit outside and watch the fishermen bring in the fresh catch from the ocean."
In addition to her pita bread, Petridis-Lim imports Kalamata olives, grape leaves, feta, yogurt and orzo directly from Greece because, she says, "I can taste the difference." When it comes to produce, however, she sources locally. "Those are from my garden," she tells me, pointing to the tomatoes in a bowl of giouvetsi ($14), which also contains orzo and juicy pork cubes oven baked in a clay dish. Other entrées include classics like the gyro sandwich ($14), souvlaki ($15-$17), and Petridis-Lim's famous moussaka ($14). While she isn't permitted to offer complementary Ouzo, wine (both local and Greek) is available.
"People tell me I'm crazy," Petridis-Lim says, referring to her insistence on using mostly organic (read: more expensive) ingredients. So it's even more impressive that no item on her menu exceeds $20. "My restaurant is not just for vacationers," she says. "I want everyone to enjoy my food."