Read old travel guides to Tampa, and Hyde Park Village comes across as the urbane epicenter of culture and style, consolation for a downtown that for decades never quite gelled. Recent years have been tough in the Village, national chains like Ann Taylor and Talbots pulling out and plenty of storefronts sitting empty. I don't want to jinx anything by saying this, but it appears that a revival is under way. Longtime residents like Lifestyle Fitness are booming enough to expand; there's a bakery coming; plus a furniture store and three new restaurants are in the works before the end of the year.
And on Sept. 20, the longtime-coming Irish 31 opened in the building occupied by the original Wine Exchange (which has since moved a block away on Snow Circle). It has always been a wonderful space, on a corner with big windows and an inviting patio, adjacent to what is now CineBistro. Owners Jay and Bianca Mize have made it even better, with gorgeous wood floors, rustic light fixtures that look straight from nearby Restoration Hardware, cool tables with attached, fold-out stools, and a wall of vintage Tampa black-and-white photos.
At once hip and comfortable, Irish 31 — the 31 a reference to Jay's jersey number as a safety for the USF Bulls — has been warmly embraced by the neighborhood. Live music on the patio makes it an easy place to linger, as do a whole lot of flat-screen televisions that are unobtrusively tuned to sports du jour. On Tuesdays, women can enjoy $3.10 martinis, Wednesdays feature two-for-one house wines, and Sundays offer brunch (affordable omelets, Benedicts, pancakes), a rarity in the Village.
The menu is a savvy mix of traditional Irish pub fare and its classic American counterparts. Jay Mize, general manager John Tatone and chef Mike Swords put their heads together to concoct a menu that plays proper homage to spuds (housemade chips, the Irish potato pancake called boxty, lots of mashed) alongside burgers and steaks. Sadly, the one-menu-all-day strategy means that dishes like the shepherd's pie ($16) and Irish pot pie ($15) are prohibitively large, and expensive, for lunchtime fare. If the aim is to sell some of the Irish dishes midday, perhaps smaller lunchtime portions would assist.
As it stands, burgers and sandwiches are the mainstay at lunch, a Reuben ($8) delicious with molten Swiss, a pile of shaved corned beef and the right amount of Russian dressing on buttered, caraway-seeded rye, and the black and blue burger ($11), a ciabatta loaded up with perfectly cooked beef, onion rings, fluffs of blue cheese and lettuce and tomato. The accompanying chips are hard to resist, even more so when they come as an appetizer topped with melted blue ($7).
Thus far, vegetables need more love at Irish 31. A Caesar salad is pleasant but perfunctory (and expensive at $9), and a tomato salad ($12) was an insult, with wan tomatoes and an undressed pile of greens given no lift by a few floppy triangles of cheddar (and its advertised "rye crostini" amounted to a few packaged croutons). And as accompaniment to a 14-ounce ribeye ($19) with mashed potatoes and delicious onion rings, a pile of unseasoned, still-hard yellow squash seemed like an afterthought.
Where the menu hits its stride is with hearty Irish dishes. A North Country lamb stew ($15) is tasty — although more soup than stew — bits of lamb swirled with barley in a dusky gravy. A port wine mushroom sauce adds sophistication to a bangers and mash plate ($12), and the rib-sticking shepherd's pie ($16) gets a similar gravy along with its ground beef, mashed potatoes and peas.
Chef Swords, an alum of the Seminole Hard Rock, will doubtless refine the menu as Irish 31 settles in, and service pacing will find its groove (for now, lunch service is too slow if you need to zip back to an office). It's heartening to see that the Mizes have taken a gamble on Hyde Park Village — let's hope Irish 31 indeed has the luck of the Emerald Isle.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. She dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.