TAMPA — Rarely does the launch of a new chain restaurant attract so many corporate honchos, media members and saucer-eyed gawkers.
Then again, most Golden Corrals don't own Justin Timberlake's pajamas.
Oh, sure, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tampa calls the getup a suit, "owned and operated" by Timberlake during his 'N Sync days. But the silken, powder-blue Asian-style outfit undeniably looks like jammies.
Such is the level of laid-back intimacy the casino wants to create with its new Hard Rock Cafe. When the 17,500-square-foot restaurant opens to the public Tuesday, it'll be the latest, glitziest addition to the casino's ever-expanding empire — and, thanks to a gift shop full of those ubiquitous souvenir T-shirts, one that puts the ultimate Hard Rock stamp on Tampa Bay.
"Having the casino without a cafe was like missing a front tooth," casino president John Fontana said during a preview of the restaurant on Friday. "We really needed that piece of it."
Tampa's Hard Rock Cafe features several milestones for the brand, including:
• It's the first with gambling. There are 20 built-in video slots at the bar and a four-table blackjack pit (complete with go-go dancers) off to the side.
• It's the first with a "burger butcher shop." Through a window, patrons can watch chefs carve up giant slabs of beef, which are ground up in-house to make hamburger. "I worked on the blend for a while," said chef Matthew P. Sadowski, formerly of the Hard Rock's Council Oak steakhouse. "You can actually get a well-done burger, and it doesn't eat like a well-done burger — it's not dry, it's not chewy; it's nice, it melts in your mouth." One local delicacy from the menu: the Cuban sandwich-inspired 1880 Ybor City Burger, which is topped with roasted pork, sliced ham, melted Swiss, mustard and pickles.
• Throughout the cafe are interactive touchscreens, ranging from about the size of an iPad to table-sized tablets mounted on the wall. Foremost among them is a "Rock Wall" made of two 52-inchers and two 82-inchers — the largest touchscreens of any Hard Rock Cafe in the world. There, customers can flip through a digital encyclopedia of rock 'n' roll memorabilia from every era, browsing by artist, item or Hard Rock location. Fewer than 2,000 of the Hard Rock's 73,000-piece collection are in the system, but that number will grow.
And then there's the memorabilia hanging in Tampa. In addition to JT's PJs, display cases feature a Diana Ross gown, a Michael Jackson fedora and a guitar used by Lynyrd Skynyrd to record Free Bird. Suits worn by Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley are on the way. In the back is an electric bass from Elvis bandmate Jerry Scheff that Hard Rock memorabilia designer Giovanni Taliaferro calls "one of our top 50 guitars."
So the new cafe is all very shiny and new. But will it be fun?
Floyd's, the nightclub the Hard Rock Cafe is replacing, was for years a popular destination for serious late-night partiers who flocked there at 3 a.m. after all the other bars had closed to dance and drink until dawn.
The Hard Rock Cafe will be open late, possibly as late as 4 a.m. There is a live music stage, and the cafe has a few special concerts lined up — Sister Hazel will perform on New Year's Eve, and actor Jim Belushi's band the Sacred Hearts will headline a party the night before Gasparilla. And hotel officials are promising a star-studded grand opening party on Jan. 12.
That said: "We do not want to be Floyd's 2," nightlife manager Troy Talpas said. "We want to make sure that we're providing a great atmosphere, a safe atmosphere. We don't want to end up at the end of the night having a lot of problem children coming in here after they've partied all night downtown — 'Hey, let's hit the casino.' We're going to let it morph into what it needs to be."