Tampa’s food scene is in bloom, and if could be described in one word it would be “fresh.” Locally grown fare is featured on menus about town, while Tampa’s master mixologists and “think outside the box” craft brewers are the reason that a meal and an adult beverage in this city of sunshine deserve a top spot on your foodie bucket list.
We asked some of Tampa’s A-listers on the food scene to share their go-to spots for fantastic drink and fare. Because, let’s face it, a tip from a local hotshot is worth a thousand TripAdvisor reviews.
Coppertail Brewing Company: Owner, Kent Bailey
Coppertail Brewing Company is an Ybor City brewery/bar that brings to mind Jules Vern’s “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.” Coppertail is actually the brainchild of a bored attorney turned head beer dude, Kent Bailey, and professional brewer, Casey Hughes. The vibe in the bar is swimmingly festive, with plenty to look at while enjoying the bestselling “Free Dive” brew popular with patrons for its citrusy, light taste and lower alcohol content. The bar itself is made from reclaimed wood from the orignal Ybor City Arturo Fuente cigar factory. Behind the bar is a huge window with a view of the brewery, a massive operation by micro-brew standards. An antique confession booth, likely harvested from a gothic style church sits barside, attracting instant chatter. The ornately carved wooden structure is equipped with dual windows, allowing multi-tasking priests of yesteryear to switch quickly from one contrite confessor to the next. Get a couple of friends and pose away—it’s worth the ubiquitous selfie. Seasonal brews are available on tap, and to quench your curiosity about craft beer, brewery tours are available upon request.
Anise Global Gastrobar: Mixologist, Justin Gray
Justin Gray is a hometown boy, imbued with local pride. “Tampa has all the elements that great cities have; natural beauty, water views, sunshine, art, sports, culture, and a fabulous food and drink scene. It’s as amazing as Chicago or Rome, if a little less well known.”
Gray mixes craft cocktails for the professional downtown working set, theater goers and anyone looking to enjoy a creative concoction astride a swanky barstool. He is the current Vice President of the United States Bartender’s Guild…so he knows his swizzle stick from his shaker.
The Drake Mojito is a favorite at Anise, and Gray is particular about getting it right. “You mix 1 ounce simple syrup or granulated sugar, 2 ounces of dark Flor De Cana Rum and one half of a large lime. Add in a generous amount of mint leaves, but don’t muddle the leaves to death. That’s the main mistake people make when they mix a Mojito! Top it with crushed ice and lightly roll the liquid together in a Boston shaker. Pour the mix into a classic Collins glass and top with Angostura bitters. Garnish with a sprig of colorful mint and drink up.”
Mixologist’s Choice: Justin Gray—My favorite Tampa spot to drink up.
Rooster & The Till
“After a day of mixing craft cocktails, sometimes I just want a beer or a shot! If it’s a beer day, I go to Rooster & the Till. Rooster is a small, independent restaurant with modern American cuisine. They have great food, quaint décor and wine and beer only. I order from their rotating list of local brews.”
Ella’s Americana Folk Art Café
“Ella’s is a super unique joint that is part bar, part restaurant and part art museum. They specialize in barrel aged cocktails. I get the Zizzou Spritz. Its Campari, gin, and Cointreau aged for two months in a charred oak barrel and served with Prosecco and a slice of orange.”
Fodder and Shine
“I get the Fountain of Youth. This is Florida after all! It’s Flor de Caña white rum with coconut mint syrup and lime.”
Brewer’s Choice: Brewer Kent Bailey—My favorite Tampa breweries.
Angry Chair Brewing Company
“I go for a brew called 3 Angry Birds. It’s a fruity Berliner Weisse.”
Six Ten Brewing
“I order the Magpie Rye. It’s a delicious pale ale with rye seeds.”
Southern Brewing & Winemaking
“I order their award-winning Prohibition Pilsner. This place is cool because they sell supplies for home brewing and winemaking.”
Ulele Restaurant: Chef Eric Lackey
Ulele (pronounced You-lay-lee) on Tampa Bay’s Riverwalk opened in the summer of 2014 to significant buzz over its menu and location. Ulele is owned by the Gonzmart family, proprietors of Florida’s oldest restaurant: The Columbia. Ulele, their newest venture, is housed in the abandoned Tampa Waterworks Plant building, built in 1902.
The adjacent Ulele Springs was the first source of drinking water for the city of Tampa, and with its renovation fresh water is once again flowing into the Hillsborough River. The pump house building that houses the new restaurant is stunningly refurbished and decorated as an homage to the indigenous peoples and the history of the city. There is Native American inspired art, sculptures, and benches salvaged from the Tampa’s old federal courthouse.
A statue of Princess Ulele, Tocobaga Tribe royalty, is centered between the restaurant and the spring, near a plaque which tells the namesake’s legend. The princess pleaded with her father, the tribe’s Chief, for the life of 17-year-old Juan Ortiz, a captured Spaniard who was to be executed as retribution for the violence that settlers had waged upon local tribes. Ortiz was spared. Executive Chef Eric Lackey is quick to explain that Ulele not only has a story to tell, but a purpose to fulfill.
“I have been around the food business since I was a child. I was ready to be a part of something meaningful. We are a scratch kitchen. Every ingredient is fresh. The only freezer on the property is for our home-made ice cream. We are the only restaurant exclusively using Florida beef. No hormones. No antibiotics. Our cows are monitored to assure quality and health, and we never separate the families. We start right here in Tampa, and make concentric circles outward when it comes to sourcing from the land and water. Tampa first, Florida next, America third, etc.”
Dinner at Ulele includes a gorgeous sunset vista. The view can be enjoyed from inside the two-story dining room, or outdoors in a beer garden adjacent to the 2,100-square-foot Ulele Spring Brewery. Brewmaster Timothy Shackton has created six distinctive craft brews: Rusty’s Red, Water Works Pale, Ulele Light, Magbee’s Honey Lager, Maple Infused Black Beer, and Bourbon Barrel Riverwalk IPL., all designed to complement the menu. The wine list is from family owned domestic vineyards. The liquor selection is the only exception to Ulele’s all American policy.
“We make intricately flavored, visually appealing dishes. We cook many of our entrees on a custom designed, oversized barbacoa grill, which imitates the cooking methods of early residents of the area,”
Chef’s Choice: Chef Eric Lackey—Where I like to grab a bite when I’m not working.
Holy Hog BBQ
“They have amazing Brisket. I also like the pork cracklings which they call Burnt Ends. Delicious. Sometimes, I get the pulled pork sandwich. I order it with all dark meat and the skin on.”
“The menu at The Refinery changes constantly, but my last favorite meal there was the braised beef tongue with cheese, grits and chives. It is a can’t-miss spot for foodies.”
“This is a famous old school Italian restaurant with white table cloths and super attentive waiters. Throwback? Absolutely. But I really enjoy that kind of experience from time to time.
I order classic dishes like Veal and Risotto.”
The Epicurean Hotel
The Epicurean, a boutique hotel opened in late 2013, could be called the hotel that food and wine built. General Manager Tom Haines explains, “Hotel restaurants don’t have very good reputations. When you check into a hotel you want to know where the locals are eating and drinking so you can go there. Our tagline is: we’re the restaurant that’s so good we built a foodie hotel around it.”
The 137 rooms and suites are outfitted with gourmet snacks with suggested wine pairings for each snack. Five mini-bottles of the suggested wines are ready to drink. Amateur mixologists will appreciate the mixing station and liquor selection, as well as drink recipes to help you be your own bartender as you relax in your urban chic room.
Upon arrival, guests are greeted at the valet stand by a representative from the Epicurean host program, who, iPad in hand, escorts them through the food and wine themed lobby and past the beautiful front desk with its halo made of wine crates. All visitors are taken directly to their room, checked in electronically and assisted with bags and questions. “No one enjoys waiting in line at the front desk. You never see a positive online review of a hotel check-in experience. We are changing that expectation,” says Haines.
Tourists with an itch to explore the neighborhood can grab one of the complimentary bicycles leaning against the lobby walls. A suggested trek is to nearby Bayshore Boulevard, the world’s longest continuous sidewalk, which offers seemingly endless water and mansion views. Gourmands will love the multiple wall and herb gardens on the property, and get a kick out of the door handles made from enormous replicas of knives, forks and spoons. The lobby sitting area has a selection of cookbooks which are all available for purchase to benefit hunger charities.
Epicurean is an inn with features that are deliciously distinctive.
The ultimate in gastronomic entertainment, the theater is a state-of-the art 40 seat arena where cooking classes, wine tastings, celebrity cook-offs, charity and private events are held. The theater will wow even the most sophisticated Food Network fan.
Evangeline is a tranquil oasis which offers food-inspired skin and beauty services and products including indulgent fresh fruit scrubs, buttery lotions and rich botanical oils infused with herbs from the hotel’s living wall.
Chocolate Pi Patisserie
Inspired by Executive Pastry Chef Kim Yelvington’s favorite French patisseries and sweet shops, Chocolate Pi is the go-to spot for delectable handcrafted sweets.
Bern’s Fine Wines & Spirits
The world famous Bern’s Steakhouse, which sits across the street from the hotel, is home to one of the most respected and largest wine collections in the world. The Bern’s cellar contains more than 6,800 different selections with more than half a million bottles. Upon opening of The Epicurean, the Bern’s wine shop was moved to the hotel’s lobby, offering the public access to its massive list. The Epicurean also offers wine and drinks at the lobby bar and the rooftop party spot, The Edge.
The Epicurean’s signature restaurant is named for the concept of raising the bar. Executive Chef and James Beard Best Chef: South Semi-finalist (2012, 2014) Chad Johnson, likes to re-examine classic comfort cuisine with a modern twist, a style described by hotel staff as: nostalgia meets nouveau. The menu changes seasonally, but some current offerings evidence the comfort meets current approach.