Altoona native brings ‘broad spectrum’ of food to restaurant’s menu

Altoona native Brenda Tyler has something in common with her restaurant: a touch of the unexpected.

The microbiologist turned restaurant proprietor – whose 360-degree career change adds an interesting twist to her story, not to mention a restaurant so clean you could eat your dinner off of it – aimed to bring the flavor and airy feel of the Mediterranean to Altoona with The Grape Leaf Mediterranean Grill, which opened in 2012.

“You can’t really tell from the outside that it looks like this in here,” Tyler said, sitting at one of the tables anchored under a mural of a coastal Mediterranean village that winds its way through a sea of mostly blue and white decor accented with greenery and hand-painted stone floors.

At the dining room’s center sits a fountain with a Middle Eastern-style gazebo sheltering a statue inside a round pool. On Fridays, the atmosphere Altoona artist John Rita designed is turned up another notch with live belly dancing.

The restaurant, located in Valley Plaza off Pleasant Valley Boulevard, isn’t all looks and no substance, though.

Ninety percent of what they make, save such items as chicken fingers, is homemade, said Tyler, who lives in Pinecroft and has a daughter, Samantha, 23, and a son, Troy, 18.

Popular menu items include hummus served with pita bread they also make themselves, and their Mediterranean onion soup became so popular it was added to the everyday menu, Tyler said.

The Mediterranean menu offers more cuisine to work with because it “encompasses a good bit more,” and has a “broader spectrum,” of items, main cook Scott Detwiler of Altoona, said.

Customer Sharon Clewell of Hollidaysburg said one of her favorite dishes is the Lebanese shawarma, described on the menu as layers of marinated rib eye and rotisserie-style leg of lamb served to order on flat bread with lettuce, tomato, onion and a choice of sauces, including tahini, garlic or tzatziki, a Greek-yogurt based cucumber sauce with garlic and lemon juice.

Other menu items include gyros, Mediterranean pizzas, an Italian chicken sausage sandwich, a baked meatball sub and spanakopita – phyllo dough stuffed with spinach and feta cheese and baked, which is “very, very popular,” Tyler said. They also serve desserts such as baklava and cannoli.

People with military backgrounds who have traveled abroad say the food at The Grape Leaf is the closest they have found to what they remember tasting across the miles, Tyler said.

“Mainly my big thing is I try to make everybody feel welcome, and I want those who are afraid to try it – we do have things on the menu that are not far out there – to just come and try it,” Tyler said. “Because we have a very knowledgeable staff who … can guide them as to what they might want to try.”

Taking a chance is something Tyler knows about.

Following a divorce and her ex-husband buying her portion of a laboratory business they owned together, Tyler had hung up her lab coat and decided to attend an intense, but fun, week-long wine program in Aspen. When she came back, she taught classes on wine tasting and hosted wine dinners at local restaurants, she said.

Tyler, who enjoys the customer interaction side of the business and has a love for trying different foods with wine – which is embraced at the restaurant by welcoming patrons to bring their own bottle and tables made from wine barrels – started gaining a familiarity with the restaurant business through the dinners she hosted.

Because of her mother’s marriage to a Syrian man, Tyler – who saw a lack of an all-encompassing Mediterranean restaurant locally – grew up eating food such as stuffed grape leaves and tabbouleh, which is, according to the menu, a salad made up of a mix of chopped parsley, tomato, onion, cucumber, cracked wheat, olive oil and lemon juice.

At The Grape Leaf, they make it a priority to know their customers’ names, Clewell said.

“I like it a lot,” she said of the restaurant. “The people here are so friendly. … I have several things that I like on the menu too, so I’m never bored and that’s great. But the biggest thing is they’re friendly, they want to take care of us, they try to do it, I love the food. I think it’s even rather decorated nicely.”

Tyler brings that community mindedness to the table in other ways too.

A program offering free Zumba and belly dancing lessons was held at the restaurant with donations benefiting Sister Paula’s soup kitchen. A women’s awareness program is in the works.

“I’m big on giving back to the community,” said Tyler, who hopes people will support her as a local business woman who is a native. “I think it’s very important to support one another.”

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.