“Thea is the Greek word for aunt, and, for me, it embodies the warm, fuzzy feeling one gets when sitting around a table, eating and drinking with loved ones,” explained Nelms, who wants all of her patrons to experience that pleasure when dining at her establishment.
The young chef might just be onto something. A recent issue of The New Yorker described 2016 as the year of hygge. For those who are unfamiliar with the décor trend, it seems to sum up the vibe that Nelms is seeking to achieve.
Pronounced hoo-gah, the Danish term has origins in the English word “hug,” but encompasses many things related to coziness and enjoying life through relaxation and conviviality. Ducking away from the frigid temperatures of a cold night into the warm, dimly lit dining room with a roaring fireplace as a focal point is nothing if not hygge. For Nelms, however, it’s less about being au courant than about sharing a slice of what gives her joy.
“I grew up with really amazing food with my German-Hungarian grandmother and with the Greek side of my family,” she said. “When I cook for people and see them smile, knowing that they are loving my food—that makes me happy.”
In creating THEA, the local entrepreneur fulfilled a lifelong dream.
“I’ve loved restaurants ever since I was little,” said Nelms, who took pleasure in designing the attractive establishment with help from friends and family. “From the tables to the bench seating—everything is handmade, including the attractive and colorful striped cushions that bring it all together.
“My aunt Olga made them,” said Nelms, referring to Olga Lembesis, well-known local caterer and designer.
You may say Nelms is “to the restaurant born.” Long-time locals may recall KitchenWorks Catering—Nelms’ mother started the business, as well as Sophia’s on Market in Camp Hill and the more recently opened Sophia’s at Walden. AnnMarie, steeped in her family’s business, served as chef at both places.
THEA serves both lunch and dinner and, in keeping with the concept of familial fare, offers dishes designed to appeal to a wide variety of tastes.
Those visiting for lunch can choose from a selection of salads like beet and arugula, Caesar and a blackberry brie, which includes field greens, red onions, sundried cherries and hand-breaded fried brie topped with a drizzle of blackberry vinaigrette.
Burgers are also available during the lunch hour and range from the standard to the unique, like the one topped with bacon, brie and roasted pear or the vegetarian black bean burger with avocado salsa and pepper jack.
Sandwich selections include turkey, chicken salad, beef brisket and roast beef. If you prefer pizza, THEA offers a selection of those, as well, from pear and walnut-topped pies to other combinations like prosciutto and asparagus or sausage and goat cheese.
Dinner selections include a hearty helping of comfort food—some with an upscale twist. The meatloaf, for example, is served over a leek and gruyere bread pudding and finished with a marsala reduction demi-glace.
“So far, people are loving it,” she said.
Additional dinner options include lemon roasted chicken, eggplant rollatini, chicken pie, fried halibut and a bone-in ribeye.
On a recent visit, I opted for the Bolognese with pappardelle. The meaty, well-executed sauce, containing finely chopped vegetables, paired well with the homemade ribbons of pasta. The ground sausage was spicy, but not enough to overwhelm the rest of the dish.
My husband ordered a panko-breaded pork chop served over haluski with bacon, which was a revelation. Why isn’t haluski—an Eastern European noodle—always served with bacon? We’ve heretofore been deprived. The combination was delicious. We also shared a stick-to-your-ribs beef goulash served with tenderloin tips and mini-dumplings and an outstanding garlicky, rich, white bean, sausage and escarole soup.
Service was remarkable for a place that had only been open for a few weeks. The staff was professional, knowledgeable and on their game. Timing was just right, as well.
Ross Gibson-Delasin is just one Arcona resident who is happy to welcome THEA to the neighborhood, describing the business as the “perfect complement to the area.”
“AnnMarie brings us her exquisite culinary experience, knowledge and passion and adds to that an excellent and friendly staff to make it a truly inviting atmosphere that makes you feel like you are dining in the comfort of your own home,” he said.
Chad Arentz of Enola agreed, saying that he first learned of THEA at a networking meeting.
“Since my family of five were already fans of Sophia’s food and were aware that AnnMarie is a recipe wizard, we visited as soon as we learned of the place, and she didn’t let us down,” he said.
Those who enjoy dining al fresco will be happy to learn that Nelms will be opening the patio in early spring, with an outdoor fireplace providing warmth against the elements.
Nelms is hoping that, through her new venture, she will be able to share the love and togetherness that she felt when gathering around the table with her family.
“I lost my theas—they were the most loving, amazing people, and that’s what I want to be to my nieces and nephews,” she said. “When you visited their home for dinner, you ate great food, you talked—it was comfy and cozy. For me, that was happiness. That’s what I want for my customers.”
THEA is located at 1303 Saxon Way, Mechanicsburg For more information, call 717-759-4654, or visit www.thea-dining.com or the Facebook page.