TAMPA — Newish Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa president Joe Lupo sat across the table from newly appointed creative culinary director Frank Anderson. In the private dining room of Rise Bakery on Tuesday, they paused before unveiling the dining concept that will "rise" in this space Dec. 14. It’s one of a whole raft of sweeping changes on property that Lupo hopes will turn the hotel and casino into a dining destination in Tampa Bay.
Anderson, whose pedigree includes running the kitchens at James Beard-awarded, Los Angeles-based restaurants Animal and Son of a Gun, has been tapped first to open — drum roll — the Rez Grill, a 120-seat American grill concept. The name is a nod to an American Indian reservation, which could be perceived as controversial.
"We’re proud of our roots with the Seminole tribe," Lupo said. But while the name is an allusion to the Seminoles, the concept is an American grill, not Native American. Anderson, 40, who arrived on the property Sept. 19, describes it as a place that will be sophisticated but comfortable, with some of the trappings of fine dining without the formality, and entrees in the $25 to $35 range.
This won’t be the first celebrity-fronted concept for the hotel. Marc Murphy’s Grey Salt lasted just over a year, never quite drawing the on-property gamers or would-be diners from elsewhere in Tampa Bay. Lupo thinks the time’s right to try again.
"We’re in the middle of a large renovation and are going to make food and beverage a pillar of our organization. How do we do that? We said, ‘Let’s get a chef like Frank in here and produce something great.’?"
To that end, the hotel has hired a new vice president, executive chef, restaurant director, beverage director and chef in the high-end Council Oak steakhouse. Anderson, who grew up in Maine but spent 10 years in Los Angeles restaurants, will first tackle the Rez Grill, but Lugo lists two other upcoming projects: an Italian restaurant set to debut in January and a probably seafood restaurant slated for May 2019.
That means there will be nine separate concepts on property — beyond the ones already mentioned, there’s the multi-kitchen Fresh Harvest buffet, the noodle bar (soon expanding to 40 seats), Plum Lounge for VIPs and the Hard Rock Cafe (about 200 seats). All together, that’s nearly 1,000 seats to fill. At what point will concepts start to cannibalize themselves in competition for diners’ dollars?
Lupo thinks that’s a long way off. This property is one of the highest-volume casinos in the country, he says, with another 600 rooms being built. And he thinks Tampa Bay area diners’ increased sophistication level requires that the hotel and casino step up their culinary game.
There’s another reason for that: millennials. Just as this generation hasn’t embraced pastimes like golf, they haven’t yet seemed to be big gamblers.
"The typical millennial doesn’t yet have the discretionary income, and in testing with slots, they aren’t the best market," Lupo says. Thus, the way to their hearts may be through their stomachs.
Anderson’s Los Angeles experience as part of the restaurant group headed by Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo (who has roots in Clearwater) tended to be hip, edgy, carnivore-centric, with no substitutions as a macho selling point. The Rez Grill will be different, with a something-for-everyone appeal and plenty of veggie and vegan dishes.
Anderson and Lupo intend to institute culinary demonstrations, wine and beer dinners and other events to draw a more "foodie" crowd. And with the new Orient Road parking garage giving visitors direct access to many of the restaurants without having to traipse through the whole casino, the Hard Rock may have hit upon the formula that could make this newcomer one of the city’s harder rez-ervations.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.