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James Beard nomination brings big boost to the Refinery in Tampa

It's more than just an honor to be nominated for a James Beard award. It is good for business.

The dining room has stayed full and the phone keeps ringing more than a week after the Refinery in Tampa's Seminole Heights (5137 N Florida Ave., (813) 237-2000; thetamparefinery.com) was tagged as a semifinalist in the best new restaurant category.

"It's been very busy. It's the Oprah effect: As soon as everyone heard, it was game on," said Michelle Baker, co-owner of the restaurant with her husband, chef Greg Baker.

They had no warning of the nomination, so didn't have a chance to prepare for the crowds that have hit the restaurant since the announcement. They were able to get a little bit of help in the dining room, but there were other challenges.

"I have a staff of three in the kitchen, and I have room for three people," Greg said. "We thought we knew what tired was."

The Refinery has a revolving weekly menu that focuses on innovative food that is sourced locally, seasonally and sustainably. You'll find Greg's latest take on pork chops, fish, beef and vegetarian small and not-so-small plates. Burgers, too, but on a recent menu the all-American sandwich was served with bacon, a kalamata olive "schmear," Manchego cheese and side of Yukon gold fries.

The list of 33 restaurants that were named as semifinalists for the award will be pared to five by the end of March in voting that is under way. Among the contenders are new venues from superstar chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York, José Andrés in Las Vegas, a Top Chef winner in Chicago and an alum of the French Laundry in Northern California.

"It's huge to be named along with some of those people," Michelle said.

History shows that the award generally ends up with a restaurant in New York City — it has in all but three years since 1997 — and the odds for advancing to the short list seem long.

But former nominees say that just getting this far has long-lasting effects.

"Foodies seem to find us now," said Jeanie Roland, the chef of Perfect Caper in Punta Gorda (121 E Marion Ave.; (941) 505-9009; theperfectcaper.com) and a four-time semifinalist for Best Chef-South. "A lot of our customers are from Sarasota and Fort Myers. We get a lot of people who come down from St. Pete, or that come over from Miami. On Valentine's Day, we had a couple that flew in from Las Vegas. We can't measure it, but people who follow that (James Beard news) are finding us."

Zack Gross, the chef-owner of Z Grille in St. Petersburg (104 Second St. S.; (727) 822-9600; zgrille.net) and a 2009 semifinalist for Best Chef-South, said the attention he received after his nomination came at a crucial time.

"It came when a lot of places were having trouble staying open," he said. "Any kind of award you get on a national level is good. People still talk about it, and I still use it in my advertising. I would be stupid if I didn't."

For now, though, the Bakers are absorbing the attention.

"I have a high level of faith in my husband's talent as a chef," Michelle said. "I always told him he would get a James Beard award, but even I was stunned we got nominated so fast.

"It's a huge honor for us, but it's a personal honor for us and our staff. In 20 years, we'll still be able to say we were part of building a James Beard-nominated restaurant. It's forever."

Jim Webster can be reached at jwebster@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8746.

James Beard nomination brings big boost to the Refinery in Tampa 03/01/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 1, 2011 3:30am]
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