Florida’s pretty city by the Bay shows off its cool personality these days at plenty of head-turning, tasty hotspots. Buzz-worthy? You bet. Beloved classics as well as razzle-dazzle newbies make a vacay in Tampa Bay deliciously fun. Here are favorites:
A GREAT GOOD NIGHT Unpack your luggage at Epicurean, an Autograph Collection Hotel in Tampa’s Hyde Park District. Hip and handsome, spacious and gracious, this chic boutique property with an eye-catching, heart-calming lobby harbors 137 contemporary guest rooms and suites. Its interior design by The Gettys Group is fashioned in serene earth tones, wine-motif accessories, appealing stonework, reclaimed wood, bead-board paneling, natural texture-rich fabrics, crushed bomber-jacket leathers, butcher-block cabinetry and cowhide rugs. Guest rooms delight with generous rain showers and pantries stashed with top-flight liquors, five half-bottle wine varietals, craft beers, espresso and artisanal snacks. Developed by Mainsail Lodging & Development and the Laxer family, owners of Tampa Bay’s landmark Bern’s Steak House across the street, this hospitality haven celebrates the tasteful life with a devotion to food and wine. Sip and quip with a sommelier in the hotel’s well-balanced, on-site wine shop. Muse with a mixologist about novel cocktails in the lobby bar.
CLASSY RECIPES At the Epicurean Hotel, attend lively cooking demonstrations (bonus: eat the results) at its Culinary Theatre, which spotlights gifted Tampa chefs, such as Michael Buttacavoli of Cena and Beth Lukens of Cloud 9 Confections, who teaches the popular “Cupcakes & Cocktails” (video above) — replete with bartender tips.
NOSTALGIA UPDATED Dine in the Epicurean Hotel’s Élevage restaurant, mastered by award-winning executive chef Chad Johnson. He and his accomplished chef de cuisine Jonathan Atanacio refresh time-honored fine fare with modern imagination: bronzed scallops with maque choux, verjus and Fresno chili pepper; shrimp-and-lemon grits with glossed vegetables, chervil and absinthe; and sorghum-glazed filet mignon accompanied by goat’s milk pommes purée, watercress, hen-of-the-wood mushrooms and truffle vinaigrette. Then scoot to the rooftop for late-night revelry at EDGE Social Drinkery, an al fresco lounge with city views.
SPA-LICIOUS Epicurean Hotel’s full-service, elegant Spa Evangeline pampers with fruit scrubs, fresh herb-infused oils, an agave nectar scalp massage and grape-centric treatments, such as the “Lost In Wine Country Body Treatment” (intriguing idea, yes?) — a skin-smoothing crushed cabernet scrub, warm head-to-toe honey drizzle and steamy shower followed by hydrating, buttery-like rub.
CELEBRITY EATS Italian-born, celeb chef Fabio Viviani has touched down in Tampa to serve up soothing, packed-with-flavor Italian cuisine at his new Osteria Bar & Kitchen in a Downtown see-and-be-seen, rustically refined space (with patio) — a collaboration with Lanfranco Pescante and David Anderson of Nocturnal Hospitality Group. This charismatic and funny restaurateur, cookbook author and “fan favorite” from Bravo-TV’s Top Chef Season 5 champions a necklace of eateries across the USA. Leap a deep dive into Osteria’s Mediterranean menu: housemade pastas with savory sauces and sensational seasonings; wild-caught fish and seafood; fired pizza crowned with an ample array of toppings; and slow-roasted meats. Especially notable are the Chianti-braised short ribs with creamy polenta, hazelnuts and zesty parsley gremolata; the squid ink gargarnelli with rock shrimp, cherry tomatoes, white wine and sea urchin uni butter; and rigatoni presented in an oversized Mason jar — its sauce of Parmesan crème, house-smoked bacon (can be omitted), Brussels sprouts, farmed egg yolk and Grana Padano cheese is vigorously shaken tableside by the waiter and then poured with aplomb into the serving bowl. Hungry yet? Cocktail aficionados appreciate the gusto of Osteria’s drinks, such as the Smokey Italian Mezcal and the Maple Walnut Old-Fashioned. Finish up with a Bombolini made memorable with vanilla custard, Key lime curd and chocolate ganache.
MEATY ICON The boxy, white, virtually windowless exterior of the building that holds Bern’s Steak House belies the dynamic dining experience within. Step through the double set of doors and a singular Tampa luxury unfolds: immense in size and impressive in clubby adornment — ruby-red walls, dark carved woods, a golden-statue staircase, chandeliers and antique paintings. The restaurant was founded in 1956 by ambitious New York natives Bern and Gert Laxer, a husband-and-wife team whose son David, now president and owner, stays true to the family’s mission to maintain excellent eats even as the company’s purview has grown. This mesmerizing extravaganza is a go-to spot for jubilant engaged couples (or those ready to pop The Question), wedding anniversary celebrants, new job high-fivers, school graduates and birthday merry-makers. Racking up accolades galore, Bern’s Steak House won a James Beard Award in 2016 and Wine Spectator’s prestigious Grand Award annually since 1981.
Eight rooms of various shapes and sizes seat diners. The many-paged menu with detailed cuts of beef (as well as appetizers, other entrées and sides) may take engrossing minutes to read, although waiter pros help eaters zoom in on preferred dishes. Chef de cuisine Haptead Habeb and his team keep expert reins on a bustling, galloping operation. Highlights include French onion soup, chateaubriand, rack of lamb, American red snapper à la plancha and charcoal-grilled jumbo shrimp on creamed corn and beurre blanc. With dinner reservations, join an optional eye-opening tour of the kitchen and part of the massive wine cellar; there are 6,800 different selections with more than half-a-million bottles, overseen by wine director Eric Renaud and senior sommelier Brad Dixon. It is said that Bern’s owns the largest private wine collection in the world. The ornate bar — run by manager Doug Hoe with ace know-how by director of spirits Nate Wilson — delivers hundreds of stellar stirred and shaken libations every night. Upstairs is The Harry Waugh Dessert Room, named after one of Bern’s mentors, where 48 private booths with tables are encircled by floor-to-ceiling redwood wine casks. Each secluded refuge has a six-channel stereo system, which diners can switch to classical, contemporary, jazz, new age and progressive recordings as well as to live music as performed by a pianist, who tickles ivory keys nearby the maître d’ station and who will take song requests from patrons via a phone wired into their booth. Pastry chefs Amber Menendez, Heather Birr and their team of nearly 20 sweets-makers prepare approximately 50 dessert choices. The macadamia nut ice cream is a winner. At this unusual and alluring hideaway for confection consumption, more than 1,000 after-dinner drinks, cordials and dessert wines are available, plus 200 scotches.
SMALL PLATES, BIG IMPACT Chef Ferrell Alvarez — a shooting star in Tampa Bay’s culinary sky — and his longtime business partner and pal Ty Rodriguez (who tunes the wine list) wow a devoted clientele and waves of eager new fans at Rooster & The Till in Tampa’s Seminole Heights neighborhood. Its visionary small plate combos are ever-evolving, even audacious: Unexpected flavors, textures, aromas and colors strategically mix and match. The awe is that such a union of diverse details work together so well. Order the charred-salty-smoky-crunchy Brussels sprouts with tasso ham and aioli; barbacoa squash with raisin mole, radish, escabeche and epazote cream; beets with avocado, mango, pepitas and chili; gnocchi with short ribs, smoked ricotta, stewed tomatoes, and spicy pickled peperonata; and lamb top round with eggplant mango amba, fermented beet, marcona almonds and skhug. The Instagram-worthy cheese plate and its accompaniments are frequently changed. Alvarez and Rodriguez’s motto is “Teamwork Makes the Dream Work.” Their chef de cuisine Brian Lampe is key to this success and the server staff rocks, too. Rooster & The Till recharges and invigorates its creative zone via fraternization with other local chefs as well — a “be better by sharing and caring” vibe. At the squared bar, tell the mixologist your favored spirit and flavors, then let a surprise cocktail be born. Eye the to-and-fro in the open kitchen — like watching a dance. In the usually packed dining room, simply decorated with artisan tiles and succulents in planters on tables, notice the steady hum of conversations, the clink of glasses, the laughter…the win.
FOOD HALL HAPPY Tampa Heights neighborhood is undergoing a rebirth (ripe for real estate investors). Its energizing new 22,000-square-foot Armature Works is set in a restored former train trolley barn perched on the bank of the Hillsborough River. This pleasing gathering place with community-building activities boasts tall ceilings, natural light, an open floor plan, communal seating (dig the leather sofas), co-working spaces and events (its Show + Tell interactive culinary and wine-tasting classroom shines) — with more than a dozen on-the-ball curated restaurants and bars, among them these three:
BEEFEATERS Steelbach, led by carnivore-savvy executive chef Nathan Hardin, is a Southern-inspired chophouse in Armature with an oak-and-mesquite open fire grille. Its grass-fed cattle are raised on a range about two-and-a-half-hours east of Tampa. A roaring fireplace, exposed brick walls, sumptuous bar, cushy indoor banquettes and outdoor patio tables, and an extensive whiskey collection are welcoming. Order the popovers with smoked honey butter; sweet corn soup; deviled eggs; Maud’s fried chicken; and spit-roasted chicken, too.
ITALIAN INSPIRATION At Ava Restaurant’s outpost pizzeria at Armature, executive chef Joshua Hernandez is dedicated daily to perfecting his pizza. Using a natural sourdough starter, the dough rises over three days before he adds locally sourced ingredients and then fires the pies in a wood-burning oven. Bite, chew, smile and dream of Naples.
FRENCH FLAIR Chef Brad Sobo at Cru Cellars — a swanky Armature bar — finesses steak frites; roast chicken; duck confit with onion soubise, fig jam and fennel straws; and roasted baby carrots with ginger, miso, basil, chimichurri and macadamias. The wine list is stocked with small batch productions from around the world; choose from more than 35 wines or seven wine flights. It also regularly hosts sociable wine education seminars. Stop by Cru Cellars for a quick swirl or stay longer for a dining whirl stacking multiple Farmer’s Platters: artisanal cheeses and charcuterie. Voila!
LATIN LEGEND A cornerstone of Tampa Bay’s historic, fascinating and colorful Ybor City neighborhood is Columbia — Florida’s oldest continually operating restaurant. Since 1905, the Hernandez – Gonzmart family, now in its fourth and fifth generations, has owned and managed this commitment to Spanish and Cuban cuisine, expanding the festively decorated property over the years from a bar-and-sandwich shop to more than 1,700 seats in 15 interconnected dining rooms that stretch an entire block. Gustatory trendsetting or avant-garde fusions here? Nope. Go, instead, for an authentic, comforting, special slice of Tampa past and present, cherished and venerated.
Its best-selling Original Cuban Sandwich, known as The Mixto, was first concocted in the 1890s for the influx of cigar factory employees who lived and worked in the burgeoning area. As those immigrants from many countries built futures here, the sandwich, like Tampa itself, enlarged, incorporating layers of flavors. Cubans contributed marinated roast pork. Spanish added fine ham. Sicilians supplied Genoa salami. And Germans provided Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles. Daily baked Cuban bread from the 104-year-old La Segunda Central Bakery continues to wrap together this medley of meats, brushed with butter and pressed to a toasty finish just as it was done in Columbia’s 1915 recipe. Corporate chef Geraldo “Jerry” Bayona directs a warmly dependable menu. Enjoy the Cuban black bean soup, empanadas de picadillo, stuffed piquillo peppers, shrimp and crabmeat alcachofas, red snapper Adelita, fideua de Mariscos, paella a la Valenciana, café con leche and flan. Jim Garris, Columbia Restaurant Group’s director of operations, supervises the 240-page wine list of 1,056 labels among a 50,000-plus bottle inventory. Columbia is said to have the world’s best collection of wines from Spain. Six nights every week, flamenco dancers perform. Olé!
Columbia Restaurant Group’s president Richard Gonzmart heads six additional Columbia restaurants in Florida, as well as seven other restaurant concepts, one of which is Ulele, where Native Floridian ingredients are applauded. It is located on Tampa’s recently completed Riverwalk, which has opened public access to beautified waterfront and connected pathways among museums, parks, restaurants and hotels.
LET THEM EAT BREAD Owned and operated by the More family for four generations, La Segunda Central Bakery in Ybor City has produced well-loved Cuban bread for more than a century. Sought-after by Tampa residents and supplied to scores of Florida restaurants, the bread is also shipped to customers across the USA and around the world.
Baked in earthen molds as they have been since La Segunda first fired-up its ovens, doughy loaves are each prepped with a single strip of palmetto frond on top, creasing a line down the middle. When the leaves curl and tinge brown, then the bread is completed.
A second new café location with seating and a wider menu of sandwiches and sweets in South Tampa features a hearth oven and open-view finishing table where bakers and pastry chefs prepare many of La Segunda’s signature items — all handmade from scratch.
ROOMS WITH VIEWS In a brick building that tracks back 128 years, near the University of Tampa, the charming transformed space that is now Oxford Exchange exudes a gladdening ambience that feels a bit like a brainy British hub for best buds. Linger in the heady bookstore. Sip specialty coffee and loose-leaf tea. Nose around a design-forward store brimming with tableware, travel accessories, jewelry, candles, soaps and more. Then excite your appetite at The Restaurant, which sports an open kitchen, an eye-candy bold art-filled main room and a sunlit greenery conservatory with retractable glass roof. Chef Richard Anderson’s menus are accented with bright-idea ingredients that give pleasant oomph and ahhh to dishes, such as a tomato soup with Cambozola (a soft-ripened, creamy cow’s milk cheese) and cornbread croutons.
THIRST QUENCHER The tagline for CW’s Gin Joint is “where style and grace have an attitude” — a darling apt description of proprietor Carolyn Wilson’s vintage-retro, chandelier-glowing, classy-sexy Downtown oasis, where patrons are encouraged to dress to impress. Peruse the wide-ranging repertoire of spirits — from Armagnacs to whiskeys — and feast on nourishing nibbles (angeled eggs, oyster soup, braised mussels, trout roe on blinis, mac ‘n’ cheese and white chocolate mousse). The lights are low. The mood is high. And the live music hits all the right notes. Cheers!
For more Sunshine State info and ideas: Visit Tampa Bay and Visit Florida.
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