When Mark Norman moved to Brandon in 1974, State Road 60 featured a Pizza Inn, a Whataburger, a McDonald's and plans to widen the road from two to four lanes.
To say the area's restaurant scene has changed would be an understatement. But even after the explosion of chain restaurants in and around the Westfield Brandon mall, the options for South Shore and Brandon residents continue to expand in new ways.
Norman calls it "sophisticated casual."
After decades in the restaurant business, Norman steps in as the operator of the new Stonewood Tavern and Grill, which opened Tuesday across from Bloomingdale Square on Bloomingdale Avenue in Brandon.
Stonewood, which has 18 locations in Florida and North Carolina, held a charitable grand opening Monday night that netted more than $6,000 for the YMCA's FishHawk branch. Norman says the excitement matched the fundraising effort.
"The community has been blown away with food and service and ambience of the restaurant," said Norman, who has seen his fair share of Brandon High classmates (Class of '76) in recent weeks. "We're kind of in between Outback and Fleming's."
Stonewood is open for dinner only, a clear distinction from other restaurants. Located at 612 E Bloomingdale Ave., it offers hand-cut steaks ($20-$30), market-fresh seafood entrees ($20-$25) and an ample wine selection.
The chain's culinary leader, who has opened all 18 restaurants, will be in Brandon for at least three weeks to make sure the chefs have perfected the recipes.
Another distinction? The restaurant opened closer to neighborhoods and away from the traffic patterns of the mall and State Road 60.
"They usually don't open near movie theaters or malls," Norman explained. "They like to be nestled in the community. They want to build long-term relationships with guests, employees, purveyors and everyone who shares their vision of being in the community and doing the right thing."
While Stonewood looks to stir up excitement in Valrico, Riverview residents are already buzzing about Joia Fabulous Pizza and Martini Bar.
Some enter expecting a pizzeria but, like Stonewood, Joia seeks to blend high-quality entrees with old-school recipes. Prices range from $7 appetizers to filets priced above $30.
On a recent Saturday night, a steady stream of customers flocked to 10475 Gibsonton Drive to get Italian dishes or soak in the atmosphere at the bar. Many expressed the same sentiment: This is long overdue.
"We hear it every day," said John Gio, one of four brothers who brought their "avant-garde" concept to Riverview after the success of three restaurants in Manatee County that bear the family name.
"We've always wanted to be in the Tampa area. We saw a real need and the right demographics."
Gio said he and his brothers opted for a soft opening, and simply have focused on satisfying each customer. The restaurant features an expansive bar, a martini-sipping couch and rooms for private parties.
Although Riverview residents have enjoyed M.J. Barleyhoppers and Mojito's at Winthrop Town Centre, Joia offers the first upscale eatery in the heart of Riverview.
There may be more to come. Rich Mozdzer, developer of the Village at Riverview, said a new mixed-use project at U.S. 301 on the banks of the Alafia River will have two waterfront restaurants when it opens in 2010.
"We have a commitment from an Italian restaurant. We're talk
ing to two Greek restaurants, a sports bar and a seafood restaurant," Mozdzer said.
He declined to name the potential restaurants, but said they would definitely be dining choices Riverview residents can't currently find in the area. The project also will have shops, medical offices, an assisted living facility and a riverwalk.
In writing a column about new restaurants, I always worry that some of the old favorites will get miffed. Please don't. I'm not looking to promote one place over the other. I'm just pointing out that when it comes to dining options, we're growing in ways some people never imagined.
That's all I'm saying.
Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa & State section. He can be reached at email@example.com or 226-3406.