A Gastro Safari Exploring the Best Restaurants in Tampa
The area’s once desolate culinary scene has grown into a fertile proving ground for some of Florida’s most innovative chefs and restaurateurs. Award-winning culinary writer Laura Reiley takes us on a curated gastronomic tour of the newest and most notable places to feast.
Early on it was wishful thinking, frankly misguided optimism. And for a while it was a kind of plucky civic boosterism by Tampa Bay restaurant titans like Richard Gonzmart of the Columbia and Maryann Ferenc of Mise en Place.
And now it is just stone-cold true.
Tampa Bay is a restaurant destination, making dozens of lists of foodie meccas and the next “it” dining spots in the past two years. There are reasons for that. The area’s demographics have skewed younger in the past decade, millennials and Gen Zers coming home after college to start working and begin adulthood. Craft beer led the way for loads of locals to get invested in what they eat and drink, which in turn drew craft distilleries, fancy ice creameries and loads of small entrepreneurial artisan food businesses. And as we see in so many great restaurant cities, good restaurants beget good restaurants, and talent begets talent.
The interesting thing is that this blossoming of comestible options has happened on both sides of the bay: on the Tampa side in neighborhoods like Seminole Heights and Tampa Heights, Hyde Park and right downtown, and also in St. Petersburg, whose downtown has erupted in a T-shaped restaurant row, with Beach Drive forming the top bar of the “T” and Central Avenue the long stem. The flavor of each neighborhood is a bit different, but here’s where to focus your attentions.
Get things started off on the St. Pete side with a whistle-wetter. One of the most sophisticated cocktail spots in the area was also among the area’s first craft cocktail bars. Mandarin Hide is hip and clubby, with two sister restaurants—an outdoor fish shack called Trophy Fish in St. Pete and Mandarin Heights in Tampa. The flagship maintains the coolest vibe, offering $6 experimental cocktails on Tuesday nights and come-hither bottomless mimosas on Sundays.
Adequately fortified, you can choose between two of St. Pete’s most intimate chef-driven charmers, Il Ritorno or Brick & Mortar a block away. Their owners have become part of the fabric of the local scene. The former is the creation of a local boy made good, chef and co-owner David Benstock, who went off to Johnson and Wales University in Denver and worked in some of the country’s best kitchens before coming home to roost. His passion is rigorously plated contemporary Italian. There’s an exhibition kitchen and chef’s table where you can swoon over preparations like short rib mezzaluna, squid-ink capellini and white truffle risotto. Brick & Mortar, a 2015 offshoot of Hope Montgomery and Jason Ruhe’s catering business, is a wee bit harder to characterize, but it is intimate and affordable, some dishes with Indonesian or Spanish influences and others squarely in the comfort food arena (there’s a rock-star burger, but the signature dish is carpaccio topped with microgreens and a housemade ravioli that, once pierced, leaks sumptuous poached egg and goat cheese mousse).
Beach Drive has a number of lovelies, including the new seafood spot Alto Mare Fish Bar and its sister cheese-and-charcuterie Annata Wine Bar next door, and Stillwaters Tavern, for stylish New England–style dishes and tap cocktails. But before you head out of St. Pete, turn your attentions to Ichicoro Ane, a New York–nightlife kind of place serving up ramen and revelry. Co-owner Noel Cruz and crew also run Ichicoro in Seminole Heights and other projects in the area’s growing handful of food halls. End on a sweet note with a fancy but quenching ice pop, with a flavor like pistachio rosewater, at Hyppo.
Everything you need to know on the Tampa side is all under one roof. Or several roofs. Hip, family-friendly food halls are the city’s most recent preoccupation. The first was the
Hall on Franklin, the brainchild of Jamal Wilson. It’s a little different than food halls in many cities because the eight vendors function synergistically—customers are able to sit down in the glamorous 1920s-style storefront and order from any of them, servers trotting off to retrieve a seafood bowl from Poke Rose or a cerebral cocktail from Ro Patel’s The Collection.
Heights Public Market came next, part of the more than $20 million Armature Works project from developers Chas Bruck and Adam Harden. Since its debut in early 2018, it has heralded an aura of extreme enthusiasm for Tampa Heights, the vast parking lot swamped with folks ready to snack along the length of the multiethnic, 22,000-square-foot market with communal seating. There have been a few vendor switch-outs, and Steelbach and Oak & Ola have cemented the complex with two full-service, sit-down options. But it has continued to tinker with an indoor–outdoor formula that keeps it hopping from early until late.
Sparkman Wharf, opened at the end of 2018, may be the buzziest of them all, anchoring the Strategic Property Partners’ (that’s Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik’s joint venture with Bill Gates’ investment management company) $3 billion Water Street development where Channelside Bay Plaza used to be. It includes a collection of metal converted shipping containers clustered in a grouping at the water’s edge, with some of the area’s top restaurateurs using it as an opportunity to do something new. There’s Montados, a Spanish concept from Mise en Place; Gallito Taqueria from the dynamos at Rooster & the Till in Seminole Heights; Edison’s Swigamajig from celeb Jeannie Pierola; and BT in a Box, created by prolific chef BT Nguyen. Now add in giant Jenga, a dog-friendly lawn and clusters of beanbags and Adirondack chairs and you’ve got a cool Tampa hangout.
Hyde Park Village in South Tampa has expanded and contracted over the decades, occasionally attracting a critical mass of laudable restaurants and then fizzling as the economy wanes. Right now it’s in a sweet spot, with a good mix of retail options, a lively Sunday farmers market and a few notable restaurants, the best of which is On Swann, a collaboration between Cafe Ponte’s Chris Ponte, his wife Michelle, former Outback Steakhouse senior vice president Trudy Cooper and former Bonefish Grill president John Cooper. With one of the prettiest dining rooms in Tampa, it’s a groaning-boards-of-cheese-and-charcuterie kind of place, with sleek craft cocktails and people-watching out on the village square—perfect for Sunday brunch with the fam.
No discussion of Tampa dining can omit the formerly grungy, little-bit-of-Brooklyn Seminole Heights neighborhood. The restaurant scene there was jumpstarted by Greg Baker at The Refinery, whose menu changes three to four times a week. At the funkadelic Ella’s Americana Folk Art Café, the coin of the realm is Kansas City–style barbecue and crazy Bloody Marys, as well as some of the area’s most coveted vegan dishes. Still, the neighborhood’s shining star these days is Rooster & the Till, where Ferrell Alvarez and his team concoct cutting-edge (but not expensive) small plates that rely heavily on the bounty of Florida’s fields and waters. And if all of this sounds too ambitious, a beer at The Independent (locals call it “the Indie”), the area’s original craft beer bar, provides that I’m-on-vacation halo, a feeling reified by a killer grilled cheese with sauteed pears or a piquant pork banh mi.
Perhaps a whirlwind culinary tour of Tampa Bay should end where it all began. Marty Blitz and Maryann Ferenc started their Mise en Place more than 30 years ago, when Tampa and fine dining were nearly oxymorons. Blitz has kept pushing the envelope, exploring trends and putting his own luxurious but playful spins on upscale New American cuisine. The South Tampa neighborhood has grown up around it (hello, gorgeous Oxford Exchange), but it remains one of the anchors for important business meetings and romantic nights out. Ferenc, on the board of directors of Visit Florida, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and other civic and tourism organizations, is among those who might have once been considered overly optimistic about Tampa Bay’s gastronomic moxie. Now, you can go in, clink glasses with her and tell her she was right.