The renovation took a year with the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay putting $16 million into redoing the 442 guest rooms and fully remodeling the terrace at Armani's.
The latter decision seems wise: Perched on the 14th floor of the hotel, Armani's has always had killer panoramic views of a 35-acre nature preserve on the northern shores of Tampa Bay, but there wasn't enough seating outside to enjoy it en plein air. Now, between courses, dinner guests can stroll and have a cocktail at one of the outdoor tables. And at some point in the future, outdoor dining, or at least outdoor desserting, may be added into the mix.
The renovation seemed an opportune time to take a fresh look at what has for years maintained its spot as a top special-occasion restaurant. It's been the site of countless proposals, business deals and important dates. But in a couple of recent meals, I realized the biggest myth about Armani's is this: that it is super expensive. Most entrees hover in the mid $30s, pasta entrees all right around $25 ($13 if you're a light eater and content with the smaller portion). In a super glamorous dining room with consummately professional servers, chef Mike Von Burg's menu continues to be smart, contemporary Italian, with a new focus on sourcing food locally spearheaded by the hotel's executive chef, Byron Gabel. All this, with prices that can at times seems downright reasonable.
Why the "ooh, it's so expensive" reputation, then? It's the wine list. It chafes quite a bit to pay $42 for a bottle of Hess Select chardonnay (which retails for $8.99) or the same price for a Diseño malbec from Mendoza, Argentina (retails for $7.99). There's a Louis Jadot Pouilly-Fuisse on the by-the-glass list for $17 — significantly more than you'd pay retail for a whole bottle. In short, wine prices are steep, which can hike up your total bill dramatically.
If you can keep your tippling to a minimum, though, Armani's is tough to beat. The antipasti course (you can select your own for $19, or have the chefs choose for you for $15) is still a local treasure, featuring top-notch olives, charcuterie and unusual veggies (roasted fresh hearts of palm and roasted yellow beets with raisins and sherry vinegar). An ample portion, the antipasti and a salad (the arugula and shaved fennel, $13, or a traditional Caesar, $15, no longer made tableside) are plenty for a table to share as starters.
Along with the elimination of tableside salad service, there have been other service changes this year. Armani's has historically had serving teams, a front waiter and a back waiter working a group of tables together. Six months ago, the restaurant went to more traditional single service, longtime waiters maintaining their firm grasp of a meal's ebbs and flows, with bussers and table runners serving the whole room more broadly. Is anything lost in this transition? Not much. Servers are still as professional as any you'd find in the Tampa Bay area, quick to make suggestions and responsive about special requests.
Beyond its antipasti, Armani's has always been famed for its signature veal scallopini. The thin-pounded veal is nice enough with its wild mushroom cream sauce and polenta ($33), but where I think Von Burg shines is with fish presentations. I was equally thrilled with a snapper, dolled up with a Mediterranean sofrito and preserved lemon butter sauce and a side of sauteed spinach ($33), as I was with a fillet of Loch Duart salmon with a citrus vanilla glaze and sides of roasted cauliflower and green beans ($29). That's not much more than you'd pay for salmon at dozens of restaurants I can think of, but the deftness of touch elevated this one. In both cases, the fish in question was pristine and fresh, the fruits of a longtime relationship with Gary's Seafood in Orlando.
And for dessert, Armani's ends strong, with Matthew Golding in the pastry department overseeing the production of superstars like the dense, rich chocolate espresso cake or the lush-and-tangy limoncello cheesecake (both $8). Follow these with coffee on the new terrace, roseate spoonbills making pink dots in the shallows far below, and it's easy to see why Armani's has maintained its position at the top of the heap of Tampa Bay restaurants.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter at @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.